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Please, No More Fiascoes

October 04, 1987

The attempt to legislate a long-term solution to California water problems was doomed before the 1987 session of the Senate and Assembly ever convened last January. In the present political climate in California, consensus and compromise are the only way to make real progress on the water front. Bombast and confrontation were tried in the Legislature and, of course, failed.

Major bills sponsored by the chairmen of the Senate and Assembly water committees sought to force through programs to accelerate the exporting of more Northern California water to the south via the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. About all that these efforts managed to do was to reopen old wounds just at a time when various factions in the state were learning to work together.

Assemblyman Jim Costa (D-Fresno) gave up first after Northern Californians succeeded in amending his bill with changes that were unacceptable to southern water leaders. Costa assured the death of his bill when he took the extra-ordinary step of personally ordering the offending Assembly amendments stripped from the legislation after it finally passed the lower house.

A measure sponsored by Sen. Ruben S. Ayala (D-Chino) got through the Senate, but it was destined to go no further without the San Francisco Bay and delta protection amendments that had been grafted to the Costa bill. When Ayala finally accepted defeat, he said bitterly: "Anyone who thinks they can reach consensus with the north is politically naive." But consensus already has been achieved on a number of critical issues. The only people who believe that consensus is impossible are those who have never tried, or wish not to try. Ayala added that the south should begin working on a voter initiative campaign to force southern demands down the throats of the north. Ayala seems to have forgotten the results of the 1982 election on the Peripheral Canal. There is no sign that the South would do any better now.

The death of the Costa and Ayala bills may cause no long-lasting harm because they would have accomplished little, if anything, that is not now being done by the state Department of Water Resources under existing law. The damage is in the disruption that the 1987 debate has caused in the informal campaign over the past three years to improve understanding and trust between competing water interests in California, which are in fact much more complicated than just north versus south. That damage can be repaired with proper effort, but not with another blind rush to win passage of the Costa and Ayala bills again next January--or, worse yet, an initiative campaign that the south cannot win.

There are at this point some necessary actions that might be achieved through legislation in 1988. The only way that such legislation is likely to succeed, however, is for all major competing water interests to pledge their support before any measure is even introduced. This united front should then take the agreement to Gov. George Deukmejian for his approval. Only then is any significant water bill to have a chance of passage. A rerun of the 1987 fiasco is not likely to achieve much, except to set back for years the efforts to solve major California water problems.

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