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THE DIVINING ROD OF WATER POLITICS

A cadre of northern environmentalists seeks to block a much-praised solution that would bring cleaner water to Southern California. Why aren't the gubernatorial candidates choosing sides?

April 19, 1998|David Friedman | David Friedman, a contributing editor to Opinion, is an international consultant and fellow in the MIT Japan Program

Water should be an acid test for those who aspire to be governor of California. Whether the candidates are willing to build the fresh-water canal around the Sacramento Delta recommended by a state and federal task force, "Cal-Fed," would determine if they truly represent California's diverse population, or only its privileged elite. So far, there only has been silence.

Contrary to popular belief, California does not have a water shortage. Urban communities, moreover, the backbone of the state's mammoth economy, use just a fraction of what's available.

More than 190 million acre-feet (an acre-foot is the volume of water covering an acre of land one foot deep) of precipitation falls on California in an average year. Plants, natural runoff and legally mandated environmental purposes like wild-river protection take 80% of this total. Agriculture uses 32 million acre-feet. California's municipalities make do with about 7 million acre-feet a year.

What the state does have, however, is a critical water-allocation crisis, greatly exacerbated by political factors. Its population lives where water isn't. All its major cities must import water through the Delta, a low-lying part of California's huge Central Valley that drains Sierra Nevada rivers to the south, and the state's vast watersheds to the north.

San Francisco depends on Delta water piped 150 miles from Hetch-Hetchy reservoir in Yosemite National Park. The East Bay diverts its water from the Sierra's pristine Mokelumne River. South Bay regions, including Silicon Valley, are supplied by the federal Central Valley Project, which pumps water from tidal flats along the Delta's southern flank. A few miles away, the State Water Project sends water to communities as far south as the Mexican border.

This system is deeply flawed. As water flows south through the decaying, swampy Delta to the Central Valley's and State Project's pumps, it accumulates carcinogens and other pollutants creating acute health risks for the 22 million Californians who eventually drink it. In summer months, water diversions reverse the Delta's natural flow, harming upriver habitats as salty brine seeps eastward. Water transfers between growers and municipal users, long touted as the solution for California's future needs, are thwarted because supplies can't be moved through the Delta in the dry periods when most needed.

As Cal-Fed and many studies before it acknowledge, the best technical solution to these problems is a canal directly linking the north Delta to the pumps of the Central Valley and State projects in the south. Such a facility would improve water quality for the state's consumers and for Delta habitats by eliminating the need to pump water through the heart of the estuary. It also would foster water markets and wet-year storage by moving water more efficiently from north to south, further diminishing demand on the already stressed Delta system.

Cal-Fed provides the first opportunity to address seriously long-festering Delta water-supply issues since the much larger Peripheral Canal, championed by then-Gov. Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr., was defeated in a divisive 1982 statewide referendum. In the following decade, opposing interests blocked any progress. Water-supply advocates lacked support for new construction. Republican governors and presidents rejected pressures to tie up Delta water for environmental purposes.

Bill Clinton's 1992 election liberated federal resource agencies from 12 years of Republican rule and unshackled the environmentalists, who launched a major legal offensive in the Delta. A spate of new endangered-species listings reserving Delta water for fish before humans was followed by federal proposals to impose the most stringent Delta salinity standards in history. When the dust cleared in late 1993, California faced water cutbacks that would have gutted its urban and agricultural communities.

A statewide backlash forced federal officials to seek a compromise for the Delta. Bay Area extremists, however, backed by federal Fish and Wildlife officials claiming huge water needs for newly listed endangered species, blocked any settlement. But the Republicans' 1994 congressional election victories spooked the environmentalists, who were terrified that the Delta deadlock would become the centerpiece of an attack on the Endangered Species Act. Reigning in their Fish and Wildlife allies, they reluctantly agreed to cooperate.

In December 1994, Cal-Fed was born.

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