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California and the West

Joint Effort to Save Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Strikes Snags

Resources: The CalFed program is confronted with lawsuits and the failure of its bid for renewed authorization.


After months of smooth sailing, the ambitious state and federal effort to save the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the aquatic lifeblood of the California economy, is facing serious legal and political problems.

In the last week, lawsuits were filed against the so-called CalFed program by the Municipal Water District of Orange County, the California Farm Bureau Federation and a coalition of rural counties in Northern California.

Although each litigant has individual grievances, the overarching complaint is that CalFed is running roughshod over private-property rights, promising more than it can deliver and tilting too far toward protecting birds and fish at the expense of people.

Also last week, an effort in Congress to renew authorization for the CalFed program and provide $20 million failed amid a dispute between a powerful Northern California congressman and Gov. Gray Davis about the direction that CalFed should take.

At the very least, the lawsuits and political disputes show that the old schisms in California water wars--north vs. south, farmer vs. environmentalist--may have been suppressed during the lengthy CalFed negotiations, but have not gone away.

Of the lawsuits, the Farm Bureau's is considered the most ominous by some CalFed backers because it could indicate that agribusiness will use its considerable political muscle to block CalFed projects it believes unfairly take water from farms.

The suit asserts that a CalFed plan announced in August for environmental restoration illegally ignores economic harm that diverting water from farms would cause.

"The federal government's narrow view is that they are going to protect species at any cost," said Farm Bureau President Bill Pauli.

Barry Nelson, attorney with the San Francisco-based Natural Resource Defense Council, said the Farm Bureau "seems to be attempting to provoke a return to the era of litigation, confrontation and deadlock, the era that CalFed is trying to move out of."

State and federal officials sought to downplay the significance of the lawsuits and political wrangling.

Deputy U.S. Interior Secretary David Hayes called the week's developments "a little turbulence in a cross-country flight."

Steve Maviglio, the governor's press secretary, said the dispute is just another chapter in a long-running debate. "No one said this would be easy," he said. "Books have been written about how difficult it is to find consensus on water in California."

The failure of the CalFed legislation in Washington mirrors a similar failure this session in Sacramento for a bill by a major CalFed booster, Assemblyman Michael Machado (D-Linden), that would have provided $130 million and created a CalFed governing body to centralize its decision-making.

Formed by a 1994 agreement, CalFed is a loose consortium of 18 state and federal agencies that report to a variety of political and bureaucratic masters. Meant as a 30-year restoration project, it has devoted the first five years largely to negotiations, planning and public hearings.

The CalFed goal is to alleviate the flooding and other environmental problems in the delta, the state's major watershed. The delta provides water to 22 million people and tens of thousands of acres of farmland and habitat for hundreds of species of wildlife.

In Southern California, agencies want the CalFed program to increase the reliability and quality of the water delivered from Northern California through the California Aqueduct.

In Northern California, environmentalists are concerned about deterioration of the delta's fragile ecosystem. The rural counties' lawsuit asserts that water is being taken illegally from farmers.

From the beginning, CalFed boosters have attempted to avoid the litigation and political wrangling that have snarled California water issues in the past. Until recently they were largely successful.

Although there will be other opportunities to file a lawsuit, Thursday was the deadline for agencies to sue over the list of projects announced by CalFed officials in August. State Water Resources Director Tom Hannigan attempted to talk agencies out of suing.

He made a personal plea Tuesday to the governing board of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, wholesaler to six counties.

Both the MWD and the Orange County district are concerned that CalFed seems to be delaying plans for projects aimed at improving water quality. The MWD did not sue, but Orange County, an MWD member agency, filed suit in Los Angeles Superior Court.

Meanwhile, in Washington, a dispute over CalFed reauthorization and funding led to a congressional stalemate.

Rep. John T. Doolittle, a Republican from the Sacramento area, thinks CalFed should be directed to give more consideration to building reservoirs desired by farmers--a position that has drawn opposition from Davis and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who had tried to get the CalFed funding in a water and energy bill, said she still hopes the money can be contained in a catchall appropriations bill before Congress adjourns this month.

Given the $8.6-billion price tag for the full range of CalFed projects--much of it earmarked by voter-approved water bonds--the loss of $20 million is hardly a crippling blow.

But the Washington dispute could be seen as a sign that the era of bipartisanship over CalFed--which began in 1994 with a handshake between Democrat Babbitt and Republican Gov. Pete Wilson--may be waning.

Even the $20 million had been pared down from the $60 million that the Clinton administration had hoped to provide for CalFed until the plan ran into opposition from Doolittle and others.

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