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Federal Water Policy Veers Off Course : Farmers and Seymour block key reform package in Senate; only hope now is in House

March 22, 1992

Farmers, who use 80% of California's water to produce 10% of its income, have won another skirmish over allocation of supplies diminished by drought. But the struggle over scarce water is not ended, merely transplanted from the U.S. Senate to the House, where the next encounter will take place on a more level battleground.

At stake last week were two plans for reforming the federal Central Valley Project, which delivers about 8 million acre-feet of subsidized water a year, mostly for irrigation. One was an amended version of a bill by Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) requiring the project to operate under California law so that surplus supplies could have been sold to parched cities. The Bradley bill also included firm guarantees that enough water would be available to restore wildlife and reclaim wetlands, now being drained nearly dry by the project.

The other was a bill by Sen. John Seymour (R-Calif.) that leaves most authority over water sales with the federal Interior secretary and irrigation districts and includes far more promises than guarantees on environmental protection. Drafted largely by rural interests, the legislation leaves subsidies untouched.

The best bill--Bradley's--lost. Even Sen. J. Bennett Johnston (D-La.), the chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee who was celebrated in a recent magazine cover story as a "power broker," couldn't budge his own committee.

Seymour persuaded Republican colleagues that the vote was a partisan affair. Agricultural interests not only from California but from other states lobbied hard against wise provisions in the Bradley bill that would have made federal water more expensive, particularly if it were used to irrigate crops declared already in surplus by the federal government.

Rep. George Miller, chairman of the House Interior and Insular Affairs Committee, now becomes the key in Congress to the fate of reforms that offer California its best hope of saving wilderness and combatting drought. There's little doubt that Miller will strongly resist Seymour's legislation. The Martinez Democrat, who often quarrels with Interior Department water policy, denounced the bill as a "travesty (that) will not become law."

Earlier, Miller was the force behind one test that showed the House to be reform-minded on water, with a comfortable majority voting to block new contracts for subsidized water until changes were made. That's reassuring. With wetlands vanishing and with a sixth "critically dry" year already all but certain, such a mind-set is vital to California's economic and environmental survival.

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