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California and the West | CAPITOL JOURNAL

Taking the Plunge Into Murky Waters

March 19, 1998|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — There was a big water story here Monday--"a big deal," in the words of Felicia Marcus, regional administrator for the federal EPA. And right away you can see one of the problems, why this is not just big in importance, but big in complexity and convolution. Any discussion invariably begins with bureaucratic lingo: EPA. CalFed. Isolated facility.

Isolated facility? Sounds like a prison in the boonies, rather than what it is: The water bureaucracy's attempt to avoid the "P" word. The Peripheral Canal is not Politically Correct--hasn't been since voters adamantly rejected it 16 years ago.

Myself, I'd call it something like the New Delta Slough if I were promoting it; the Delta Drain if I wanted to scuttle it.

For now, let's just call it a ditch.

To sum up this big story, CalFed--a group of state and federal officials--released a thick report detailing three alternatives for fixing the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the source of drinking water for 22 million Californians and irrigation for Central Valley farmers. The Delta plumbing is clogged and contaminated.

One solution includes the 44-mile, smaller ditch. It would tap into relatively clean Sacramento River water at a point roughly 20 miles south of the Capitol and carry it around the Delta to near Tracy. There the water would be pumped into federal and state aqueducts and moved south. Currently, the gigantic pumps suck water--along with unhealthful bromides and helpless fish--directly out of the brackish Delta.

"Our primary goal is improving the quality of drinking water," says Timothy H. Quinn, deputy general manager for the Metropolitan Water District, wholesaler for 16 million Southlanders. "Our secondary goal is the reliability of supply. The debate has changed. People still are trapped into the mind-set that this is all about supply.

"Standards are getting tighter because we're finding things in the water that cause chronic health problems--i.e. cancer, the risk of miscarriages--and it's related to the Delta."

The MWD is one of the stakeholders--more insider lingo--participating indirectly in the CalFed process, along with other urban users, environmentalists and farmers.

*

In a 167-page "summary" of its report, CalFed issued this warning about California's main source of drinking water: "The level of bromide . . . is more than six times the national average. As a result, public water systems relying on the Delta as a drinking water supply may face some distinctive challenges in continuing to produce safe drinking water."

Here are other perspectives on this big mess:

* Right now, enough surplus river water is flowing into San Francisco Bay and out the Golden Gate each day to supply 100,000 families for a year. Or, it could fill 1.6 million swimming pools. (That, of course, is what northerners always have suspected happens to their water in the Southland.) At the height of the recent floods, five times that much surplus water was barreling hellbent for the Gate.

You'd think government types would have built a reservoir or two to hold this wasted water for the next drought. They tried. There were plans for another off-stream reservoir near Los Banos. But water agencies, which were investing in the project, pulled the plug because they couldn't rely on the Delta for delivery.

Environmentalists also argued that the water we have now should be used more efficiently. Some activists even hope to discourage population growth. "Look," one told me Monday, "if you don't water it, it won't grow."

However, more storage is on the CalFed bargaining table along with a Delta fix.

* Out-of-staters apparently haven't heard about this crisis. They're flocking into California anyway. Our current population of 32 million-plus is projected to rise to 48 million by 2020.

* Fish are being obliterated by the pumps. Real fish: salmon, steelhead, striped bass. Thirty years ago 500,000 salmon were returning annually to spawn; now only 150,000. Stripers are down from 4 million to 750,000. This clogs the system because pumps sometimes get shut down to save fish.

The ditch--along with good screens--would help greatly by allowing fish to avoid the pumps.

*

CalFed's plan is to hold public hearings, recommend a solution by summer's end and let Gov. Pete Wilson and U.S. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt approve it before Wilson leaves office in January.

It'll never happen that fast, most say. This one's for the next governor. It's a $10-billion plumbing fix that also includes landmark environmental restoration. And it's being negotiated by water warriors long leery of each other.

"It is a big deal," notes EPA's Marcus, "and it's on our watch. We have a responsibility to get this right."

Everybody will need to revise their mind-sets and compromise. Either that or build a monster moat all along California's border.

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