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Head-first into hazardous waters

April 25, 2006|Bill Stall | BILL STALL, a former editorial writer at The Times, is a contributing editor for the Opinion page.

'I MAY BE foolish, but I'm not naive," says state Sen. Joe Simitian, a Democrat from Palo Alto. Simitian is doing what no one else in California has dared in the last 20 years: reviving the debate over a more direct and secure way of getting Northern California water through or around the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California.

It's what in 1982 was called the Peripheral Canal. Vilified by environmentalists and almost everyone else in the north, the proposed canal was clobbered at the polls.

Since then, just saying the words "Peripheral Canal" was enough to end political careers. Might as well shout "Repeal Proposition 13!" in a crowd of homeowners. Indeed, you will not find the word "canal" in Simitian's Senate Bill 1612, which proposes a $3-billion construction bond; it's a "facility." Around Simitian's office, it's simply "the Bagel," named after a codeword from an episode of "The West Wing."

Initial reaction has been largely predictable. Some groups are outraged that he would dare raise the subject. Others, increasingly aware that delta conditions have changed and some sort of transfer facility is badly needed, offer careful support or remain quiet.

Simitian's bill is on hold right now. No problem. He acknowledges this project could consume the last seven years of his projected service in the Senate. That's a rare and courageous commitment in these days of a term-limited Legislature.

The state's water system -- moving it to where it's needed -- is already dependent on shipping water from north to south. The question is how well we do it.

The Peripheral Canal was one solution. Historically, the Sacramento River flowed south past the city of Sacramento and out through San Francisco Bay to the sea via the delta, a 738,000-acre maze of channels and sloughs. The San Joaquin River flowed north and mingled with the Sacramento en route to the bay. A score of islands were created in the 19th century by construction of 1,100 miles of levees, many now in need of repair and subject to collapse.

When the State Water Project went into operation in the 1960s, giant pumps at Tracy in the south delta began sucking up massive amounts and sending them through the 444-mile-long California Aqueduct to farmers in Kern County and folks throughout Southern California. In all, 22 million to 24 million Californians get at least some of their water via the delta.

The natural delta was not a very efficient plumbing fixture for getting high-quality Sacramento River water to the pumps. So a second stage of the 1960s plan called for a concrete canal to shunt the water around the eastern periphery of the delta (hence Peripheral Canal) directly to the pumps. This wasn't acted upon until the 1982 proposal.

With some justification, northerners feared a Southern California water grab. With no guarantees to limit operations, nothing could keep the south from using its political clout to take as much as it wanted. After all, Southern California had a history of reaching out to other areas for more water to fuel its growth. Northerners chanted, "No plumbing before policy."

Environmentalists battled against the canal, believing it to be a death knell for the fragile and rich delta environment and fisheries. The fear was that the good Sacramento water would go south and the delta would be left with polluted irrigation runoff from the San Joaquin Valley.

But since 1982, the need for a transfer facility has become far more necessary and justifiable -- though some have called for a much smaller pipeline than the Peripheral Canal. It's now recognized that a massive failure of delta levees, by flooding or earthquake, could shut off the supply of water to Southern California for months or longer. The transfer facility also would give the south better quality water. In the longer range, climate change could force flows of salty ocean water to back up into the delta and the pumps, contaminating the south's drinking water. "We are one dramatic event away from disaster," says Simitian -- a view now shared by many, including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

More thoughtful environmentalists are coming around to the need for a facility. Even without a canal, and after spending hundreds of millions of dollars for environmental restoration, the delta is a mess. Fish life suddenly is plummeting, and no one knows why. Simitian's bill would impose a modest surcharge on delta water use to pay for conservation programs, which could lead to a reduction in the amount of water that has to be shipped south.

The north's water-grab fears are addressed by Simitian's proposal that the facility be controlled by an independent water authority dominated by Northern Californians to control the flows and emphasize environmental restoration and water conservation.

Simitian says he's in a position to lead such a crusade: He's a northerner with a 100% pro-environment voting record and no prior involvement in the state's water wars, thus, no axes to grind. No one else seems to want the job. And somebody has to do it.

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