For four years, state and federal agencies, urban water officials, agricultural leaders and environmentalists have struggled to settle some of the most complex and vexing water issues ever to face California. Working under the title Cal-Fed, they had hoped to announce agreement recently on the first stage of a proposed 30-year, $8-billion program. The goal is to restore the environment of the polluted Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and assure a stable, high-quality water supply for two-thirds of all Californians, including those in coastal Southern California.
A formal agreement would have been a major achievement, but water disputes are not settled easily: Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt and outgoing Gov. Pete Wilson were able to proclaim progress but not a deal. The hitch came in the conclusion of the Cal-Fed interim report, which says construction of an undetermined number of off-stream reservoirs may be needed to meet California's future water needs--a provision adamantly opposed by environmental organizations.
But this setback should not overshadow the significant progress Cal-Fed has made. The 157-page document contains some creative new programs to restore the environment and improve the quality of water exports from the delta to the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California. The plan would also enhance flood control and improve the riverine habitat throughout the 61,000-square-mile Sacramento-San Joaquin watershed, running from Kern County north to the Oregon border. The plan includes a water marketing program, stretching water supplies through conservation and reclamation, and greater use of ground-water basins for storage in wet years for use in times of drought.
Perhaps most important to the environmental community, the plan will attempt to avoid building a concrete channel around the delta. A decision on the Peripheral Canal will be put off at least seven years. Babbitt stressed that no conclusions have been reached about the need for new reservoirs although farming, labor and development interests indicated they could not support Cal-Fed without them.
The future health of California's economy depends on an adequate supply of high-quality water and a healthy environment. And the future of California's water supply depends on the success of the Cal-Fed process. It cannot be allowed to fail.