Healing Move on Water

The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta has been the real and symbolic heart of California water controversy for decades. Free the deadlocks in the delta and you open the way to solving many of the issues that split north and south, environmentalists and water developers, farmers and city folk.

Today there is cause for optimism that one of the delta’s most nettlesome problems is close to solution. The state Department of Water Resources and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation have formally agreed, after nearly three decades of negotiations, on a scheme for coordinating the operation of the giant water-project pumps that tap the delta for export to the farms of the San Joaquin Valley and millions of urban water users in Southern California.

The so-called coordinated operating agreement between the State Water Project and the bureau’s Central Valley Project will have to be ratified by Congress and be subjected to legal formalities on the state level. Even though potential pitfalls lie ahead, the work concluded last week by David Kennedy, state water resources director, and David G. Houston, the bureau’s Sacramento chief, can have a significant effect on the future management of California’s water resources.

Houston’s work deserves special commendation, for he was able to free the bureau from a long-held, unyielding position. David Schuster, a former bureau employee who now represents State Water Project contractors, played a crucial shuttle-diplomacy role in the final stages of the negotiations.


The delta is the maze of sloughs, marshes and islands formed by the juncture of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers southwest of Sacramento. The abundant waters of Northern California naturally flow out from the delta through Suisun, San Pablo and San Francisco bays to the Pacific. Since the 1960s the state and federal pumps near Tracy in the southern reaches of the delta have sucked millions of acre-feet of water a year from the delta into the state’s California Aqueduct and the federal Delta-Mendota Canal.

The pumping has severely affected the quality of delta waters and the delta environment. The state Water Resources Control Board sought in 1976 to counteract those forces by adopting its decision No. 1485 establishing water-quality standards that had to be met, in effect, by adjusting the export pumping. For every gallon pumped, some additional amount of water could not be pumped, but had to be allowed to flow freely through the delta to keep its waters fresh.

While state and federal project officials worked informally over the years to schedule their pumping to mitigate delta problems, the Bureau of Reclamation has refused to be legally bound by the state board’s action. The bureau always insisted that Congress never intended Central Valley Project water to be used for environmental purposes in flushing out the bay and delta. It was supposed to irrigate crops. Thus, during the drought of 1976-77 the state had to let considerable water flow out the delta to maintain water-quality standards. To achieve this, the state had to curtail the water allotments of some of its contractors.

In the Kennedy-Houston negotiations, however, the bureau has agreed to respect the water-quality standards of D-1485. This is a major political and legal breakthrough, assuming that Congress goes along. Considerable amounts of new water might now be made available for use. Estimates start at half a million acre-feet a year and go up, although no one is certain.


The agreement opens the way for the possible purchase of currently surplus federal water by the state, which is short of water. The Central Valley Project, in turn, might get to use excess capacity in the state aqueduct to ship some of its water south during periods when its canal runs full.

Environmentalists are pleased because it means greater certainty of protection of the delta and bay from the effects of water export through pumping. Such assurance on a long-range basis depends, however, on retention of adequate water-quality standards. The Deukmejian-appointed Water Resources Control Board is scheduled to begin a review of the standards next year.

Maintenance of a healthy delta is important to all of California. Successful conclusion of the Kennedy-Houston negotiations is a significant step in that direction.