Given the sometimes heated, and always complicated, politics of water in the arid West, it is perhaps remarkable that Congress is close to reforming the state's biggest federal water project so that it benefits not just farmers but the vast majority of Californians--those who live in cities. The reason behind this can be summarized in one harsh word: drought.
California is in the sixth year of a severe dry spell that has reservoirs at record-low levels, has forced farmers to cut back on their crop acreage and has city dwellers from Marin County to Los Angeles seeing red over high water bills. Everyone is feeling the pain, so it's an opportune time to look for ways to keep the next drought--the inevitable next drought--from being quite so bad.
In the old days, when government had money to burn, the answer would have been to build new water systems like the massive State Water Project, which brings millions of acre-feet of water from Northern California's rivers to farms and cities in the south. But for both financial and environmental reasons, those days are over. So the logical thing to do is modify the way existing water projects are run so that the precious commodity they carry is used more efficiently and creatively. That's where Congress' long effort to reform the Central Valley Project, which accounts for about 20% of the state's water supply, comes in.
When the federal government first started building the CVP, 50 years ago, it was designed largely for farmers in the San Joaquin Valley. They were sold water at subsidized prices under 40-year contracts and barred from reselling any surplus water they had. Those rules are out of date now. Farming is a smaller part of the California economy and, from Santa Rosa to San Diego, fast-growing cities need more water. The CVP has enough water to meet the need and still give farmers generous allotments, but CVP regulations must be changed so that Central Valley farmers with surplus water can sell it to urban water districts. That is the most important thing a CVP reform bill pending before a House-Senate conference committee would do.
But, as with any fundamental change, the process of getting CVP reform to this final stage has not been easy. There has been fierce infighting among members of Congress and powerful lobbyists representing groups with an interest in the CVP--farmers, big landowners, water agencies and environmental organizations. Yet through the patient work of George Miller (D-Martinez) and several Central Valley representatives in the House and Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) and John Seymour (R-Calif.) in the Senate, a final deal is near. But it's not a done deal.
A conference committee chaired by Miller, and whose members include Seymour, must hammer out a final, compromise version of CVP reform before Congress' scheduled adjournment Oct. 2. But that committee has not met for a week, and the hang-up is in Seymour's office. The freshman senator, appointed two years ago by Gov. Pete Wilson, wants to make sure farmers' interests are protected in the bill so that agricultural jobs are not lost. The farm lobbyists who helped write his Senate version of the CVP bill are balking at making a realistic counteroffer to Miller's House version, which tilts toward the environmentalist position.
At worst, Seymour's strategy could be construed as a cynical effort to sabotage CVP reform by simply stalling until the clock runs out. That would be a shortsighted gamble. With a seventh year of drought looming, Congress will return to CVP reform next year. By then there is a chance that Seymour, who is in a tough election battle with former San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein, won't be around to help farmers cut a decent deal for themselves. So the time to do it is now.
Trying to protect farm jobs is fine. But there are many more jobs in California's cities that would be put at risk if this state doesn't get its water system working more efficiently before the next drought--or even by next year if the current drought continues. Congress is closer to reforming the CVP, in a fair and balanced manner, than it has ever been before. It would be irresponsible to lose the momentum for reform now. If Seymour is seen by the voters as the man responsible for botching a water deal that's good for California, it could wash his still-new Senate career down the drain.