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Water Plan Left Adrift by Congress

Hopes for the CalFed program to restore the San Francisco Bay Delta now rest with the next session, which will convene in January.

November 27, 2002|Steve Hymon | Times Staff Writer

The joint state and federal effort to restore the San Francisco Bay Delta -- the source of water for two-thirds of California's population -- suffered a setback last week when the 107th Congress adjourned without authorizing the so-called CalFed program.

The survival of the federal support of CalFed now depends on whether legislators can convince the new Congress, which will convene in January, that the program is the best way to avoid returning to the fighting among water agencies that threatened the health of the delta in previous decades.

Federal support of the massive water system is extremely important, many public officials say. Without the U.S. government's planning and coordination of myriad conservation and ecological programs, the delta's delicate ecology could fall into its previous disrepair -- with salmon runs withering and streams dirtied.

A failure to improve the quality of the delta could mean further limits on the amount of water that is available for cities and farms under such regulations as the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act.

Southern Californians would be among those bearing the brunt of the losses because roughly one-third of the region's water flows through the delta in most years.

"The bottom line is that for California and the West there is no plan B or viable alternative" to fixing the delta, said Stephen Hall, executive director of the Assn. of California Water Agencies. "We have no choice but to convince Congress that CalFed is the path to the solution in California and, we believe, every major stream in the West," Hall added.

CalFed was formed in 1995, and the program's goal was both simple and far-reaching: Agricultural, urban and environmental interests would put aside their many differences and fix a collapsing delta ecosystem

Specifically, they would find ways to restore salmon runs in the Sacramento River and its tributaries while increasing water storage facilities by raising dams, building reservoirs and expanding the banking of ground water to use in dry years.

Since its strategy was endorsed by the courts in 2000, CalFed has received the bulk of its funding from the state. That will not change in the future.

For example, the water bond Proposition 50, passed by voters Nov. 5, will eventually contribute nearly $2 billion to CalFed projects. By contrast, proposed federal funding for CalFed in 2003 was $30 million.

But federal approval of CalFed remains crucial because federal agencies are so deeply involved in regulating the way California's water system is operated and only they have the authority to force the various water agencies to work together.

Timothy Quinn, a Metropolitan Water District vice president, doesn't believe the failure to get a CalFed bill through Congress is a fatal blow to the program.

But, he said, "Ten years ago we were in crisis. The fish populations were crashing, we were water rationing. CalFed has brought stability and if we let go of that policy framework, there's no doubt in my mind we'll slip back to that kind of chaos."

Nonetheless, the House and Senate CalFed bills spent much of 2002 languishing in Congress for a variety of reasons, including the usual disdain by other states for California projects and infighting among CalFed's far-flung agencies over the project's priorities: Was it to save fish or improve storage?

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) finally got a stripped-down version of her bill passed the last night Congress met last week, while Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Corona) saw his CalFed bill in the House become embroiled in a labor dispute unrelated to water policy. His bill never came to a vote.

Not all environmental groups believe the Bush administration did enough to push CalFed in Congress.

"Let's face it, the reason that CalFed exists is because the bay-delta was a collapsing ecosystem," said Gary Bobker, the Bay Institute's program director. "But we clearly don't have a climate back in Washington that is ... going to defer to home-grown compromises over California water."

The Bush administration has said it supports CalFed.

"We are committed to making CalFed work for the long term, because I believe we must work many decades into the future when water issues are involved," Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton said in a speech last week to the Assn. of California Water Agencies in Anaheim.

"This is what the CalFed program has done, and it's a grand vision," Norton added.

Patrick Wright, CalFed's director, said he believes his agency ultimately will get approval from Congress for one reason: It's working.

Wright said one of the brightest examples of CalFed's work is a $12-million effort to work with farm interests to restore salmon runs in the Butte Creek watershed, northeast of Sacramento.

In the last five years, five dams have been removed, four more have been retrofitted with fish passages, and habitat along the creek has been restored.

As a result, spring-run chinook salmon returns have averaged 7,650 in the last five years. In the previous decade, they averaged 364.

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