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California and the West

Legislature OKs Southland-Backed Water Project

Capitol: On session's last day, lawmakers weigh purchase of Headwaters Forest in Humboldt County as part of bill to ensure continued Colorado River supply.


SACRAMENTO — In a significant victory for Southern California water interests, the Legislature on Monday approved a $235-million water project aimed at ensuring continued flows from the Colorado River.

The state Senate then approved a measure linked to the water bill in a package deal: the $210-million purchase of the 7,500-acre Headwaters Forest in Humboldt County, the largest stand of ancient redwoods still in private hands, and a nearby 900-acre stand of redwoods known as Owl Creek. Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa (D-Los Angeles) predicted that the lower house also would follow suit and approve the Headwaters purchase later in the night.

Gov. Pete Wilson late Monday endorsed the Headwaters deal--which environmentalists oppose and about which the owner, Maxxam Corp., has been noncommittal. "The governor really wants to save these trees," said Wilson spokesman Sean Walsh.

In another series of significant votes, the Senate and Assembly also approved $155 million to help struggling students and public schools, though part of the program appears to be headed for a veto by Wilson.

The voting and deal-making came as lawmakers considered more than 100 bills on the last day of the legislative session. For Southern California, the big one involved water.

"It's the most important vote we'll cast here," Sen. Steve Peace (D-El Cajon) said, proclaiming that the project amounts to a "fundamental shift" away from new dams, reservoirs and massive aqueducts toward conservation.

The money would be used to line parts of the All-American Canal and its Coachella branch in Imperial County with concrete and to provide ground water storage along the Metropolitan Water District's aqueduct.

The canal moves Colorado River water to San Diego, and water officials believe that the project is vital for Southern California's water needs.

By lining what now are earthen canals with concrete, Imperial Valley farmers could conserve significant amounts of water. That would reduce demands by Southern California on water from the north.

Remnant of Failed Bond Package

The $235-million canal project is the remnant of a $1.7-billion bond package that failed last week. San Diego-area lawmakers led by Peace quickly fashioned legislation that focused on the canal.

The MWD, as well as water interests from San Diego and Imperial counties, pitched in by hiring some of the most influential firms in town to push for its passage. Among the lobbyists were several former legislators and ex-aides to Wilson.

"Whatever we lose [in water] we come north for," said Raymond Corley Jr., the main lobbyist for the MWD.

Chris Frahm, chairwoman of the San Diego County Water Authority, hailed the vote as "tremendously important for California," and said San Diego will enjoy "a secure source of water for the first time in our history."

The measure was opposed by some conservatives, who viewed it as too costly, and some liberals, among them Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Los Angeles), who cited opposition from environmentalists.

Several Northern California lawmakers supported it, although it had no direct benefits for their districts. They said, however, that they will come calling later, seeking Southern California support for their various proposals for bigger reservoirs, flood control projects, even the long-stalled Auburn Dam in their part of the state.

San Diego-area lawmakers insisted that they gave no assurances to Northern California legislators, though Assemblywoman Denise Ducheny (D-San Diego) said they would "get our undying love."

Under a compact with other states and the federal government, California is allocated 4.4 million acre-feet of water each year from the Colorado River. In recent years, however, the state has drawn 800,000 acre feet above that amount.

Other Western states that depend on the Colorado have been demanding that California reduce its take. U.S. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt has threatened to order a mandatory reduction unless California takes steps on its own.

If the canal is lined, less water will find its way to the Salton Sea, already a distressed body of water that has had mass die-offs of fish and birds. The bill includes money to study ways of reviving the Salton Sea.

Pay Raise Talks Continue

The water vote came as lawmakers rushed to finish work before adjourning for the year at midnight.

In an example of political horse trading, supporters tied their support of the water project to the legislation turning Headwaters into a redwood park.

Sen. Byron Sher (D-Stanford), who helped negotiate the purchase, said it will provide protection for the forest and for endangered species that depend on it.

Maxxam representatives could not be reached Monday. But Sher said the company had agreed to the terms. The state's $210 million, combined with $250 million from the federal government, would leave the firm $460 million richer and relieve it of the hassle of fending off years of litigation and protests from environmentalists over logging.

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