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California and the West

Delta Dams Proposal Gathering Momentum

Environment: Business group says costly plan is needed to ensure water for state's growing population. But some fear impact on fish, water quality.


As government officials struggle to produce a blueprint for dividing up California's most prized water supply by the end of the year, business leaders from around the state are pushing for a multibillion-dollar plan, opposed by most environmentalists, to expand and build dams along rivers that feed the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Headed by the Bay Area Council, a group representing regional business interests, a coalition of business groups that ranges from the California Farm Bureau to the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce is hoping to persuade Gov. Pete Wilson, U.S. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and Gov.-elect Gray Davis that a substantially expanded system of water storage is the best way to ensure the supply needed to accommodate expected population growth over the next 20 years.

The Bay Area Council not only endorses a controversial proposal to invest heavily in new water storage facilities, it calls for accelerating the construction process.

The plan also waves off objections by a variety of experts, including the Los Angeles-based Metropolitan Water District, that the state has overestimated water demand between now and 2020.

"We conclude that irrespective of whose numbers you look at, there are going to be gaps in supply in drought situations, and we think we should get as efficient as possible, capturing surplus water, flood water, for example, and put it into storage," said Sunne McPeak, president of the Bay Area Council.

Among the first to applaud the plan were officials of the Metropolitan Water District.

"The more we study this thing, the more we come to the conclusion that accelerating investment in storage will allow us a better balance between the environment and economy of California," said Tim Quinn, general manager of the MWD, the water wholesaler for 16 million Southern California residents.

The state's business leaders have played a key role in shaping the 4-year-old negotiations over Bay-Delta water, and Babbitt made it clear Tuesday that their latest proposal has met with a favorable reception.

Babbitt stopped short of saying the proposal would be adopted, but said it was a balanced plan--pointing out that it calls for investment in measures such as water conservation, recycling and efforts to curb pollution that have been endorsed by environmentalists.

"This is exactly the kind of proposal I welcome," he said.

A spokesman for Wilson also praised the proposal, while a spokesman for Davis declined to comment specifically, saying his aides had not had time to review the proposal.

But environmentalists questioned the wisdom of the proposal.

"We are already taking huge amounts of California's free-flowing water and diverting it to consumptive uses," said Tom Graff, senior attorney for the Environmental Defense Fund.

Moreover, environmentalists say it is too early to commit to a $3-billion to $6-billion capital improvement program.

"Maybe we will need to invest in big, new reservoirs," said Gary Bobker, senior policy analyst for the Bay Institute of San Francisco. "But it doesn't make sense, economically or environmentally, to commit to such a huge investment before we know whether other approaches will work just as well."

Babbitt is the presiding federal official in an operation known as Calfed that has brought together experts from Washington and Sacramento to devise a water allocation formula that can protect the environment while satisfying the urban and agricultural interest groups that depend on Bay-Delta water.

The 738,000-acre delta, the largest wetland habitat in the western United States, provides drinking water for 22 million Californians and much of the irrigation for the state's $24-billion agricultural industry. But water diversions have devastated delta fish populations and undermined water quality.

Representatives of Calfed are known to be considering the expansion of Shasta Dam, which captures water from the Sacramento, McCloud and Pit rivers, along with the enlargement or construction of reservoirs at four or five other locations.

Babbitt said he believes an expanded storage system, in the ground or in new reservoirs, could be accomplished without reducing the volume of free-flowing water in rivers and streams to the point where fish cannot survive or water quality is compromised.

"I think it is possible, because all sides recognize the storage issue is about both reliability and flexibility in the system and not about ratcheting up the baseline of depletion," he said.

"If storage allows us to release more water back into the streams at the right times during fish migration cycles, is it all that bad?"

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