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Pared-Down Water Plan to Be Submitted in 1987

Times Staff Writer

Gov. George Deukmejian’s Administration is preparing to submit a new water package to the Legislature in 1987, a stripped-down version of the plan that failed in 1984, according to David N. Kennedy, director of the state Department of Water Resources.

The plan, contingent on Deukmejian’s reelection next year, would reverse the position the governor took after the stinging rebuke of a year ago, when he blamed Democratic lawmakers for the defeat. He said then that it would be up to the Legislature to produce an acceptable plan for supplying the state’s water needs.

But now the Administration is once again gearing up to take the initiative on the water issue.

The package would contain three key elements:

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- Authorization for $300 million in Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta projects needed to ship additional surplus water south.

- A commitment to help maintain and restore deteriorating delta levees.

- Environmental protections for San Francisco Bay.

Missing from the pared-down proposal would be a number of measures designed to restore delta fisheries, promote water storage in natural underground basins and improve flood control. These elements of the 1984 package have survived and are moving piecemeal through the Legislature with virtually no opposition.

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The new, less complicated Administration plan would be sold as a formula for improving water quality for all users, including those in Northern California who are concerned about increasing pollution from agricultural runoff, Kennedy said in an interview.

“More and more we need to shift the debate to improving water quality,” he said, rather than to “providing an additional 500,000 acre-feet of water for Southern California.”

The shipment of surplus water to Southern California long has been a highly volatile issue, particularly in the water-rich north, where voters overwhelmingly defeated plans for construction of the Peripheral Canal in 1982. The canal would have diverted additional Sacramento River water, moving it around the delta to the State Water Project aqueduct that supplies the south.

Northerners worry that the shipment of additional water south will imperil the environmentally delicate delta fisheries and wildlife habitats and threaten water quality in San Francisco Bay.

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Delta-area interests were especially critical of the canal proposal because they were afraid that water quality in the delta would deteriorate if too much fresh water were shunted around the delta for use in the south.

The Peripheral Canal, even a scaled-down version that was once under consideration, is a political impossibility, Kennedy said.

Rather than routing water around the delta, the governor plans to propose widening and deepening existing delta channels, and perhaps constructing some new ones, within the delta.

The new plan, unlike the unsuccessful 1984 proposal, would require approval by only a simple majority of the Legislature, greatly improving its chances for passage, Kennedy said.

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Last year, Deukmejian insisted that key bills in his water package be urgency measures, so that they could go into effect immediately after being signed into law. Urgency bills require two-thirds approval.

The idea was that because urgency measures are not subject to referendum, the water plan could not be overturned by the kind of campaign successfully used to defeat the Peripheral Canal plan in 1982.

Deukmejian said he wants to avoid another divisive campaign over the emotional water issue. His opponents contend that he simply wants to avoid having a water referendum on the statewide ballot in 1986, when he is expected to run for reelection.

Last year’s key delta facilities bill fell one vote short of the two-thirds margin it needed for passage in the Senate. The urgency provision was dropped, making it a majority vote bill. The Senate passed it and sent it to the Assembly, where it died.

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Kennedy said he anticipates opposition to the governor’s revamped water plan, particularly from environmental groups that have consistently opposed diverting Northern California water to the south.

The strategy is based on an assumption that environmental opponents would be unable to raise the money needed to carry out a successful referendum drive against a scaled-down proposal, he said.

In 1982, environmentalists were joined by wealthy San Joaquin Valley farming interests in the successful referendum campaign to defeat the Peripheral Canal plan. Kennedy said he believes that the Administration’s new plan will not arouse serious opposition from the farmers.

Deukmejian’s 1984 water package included 13 bills, among them measures to restore delta fisheries, finance flood control projects, protect Northern California water supplies and reclaim waste water. The simpler package being discussed for 1987 would be more manageable and less likely to create substantial opposition, Kennedy said.

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In theory, the governor already has the authority to deepen and widen delta channels to send more water south, even without legislative authorization. When voters approved the State Water Project more than 20 years ago, the plan provided for raising the money needed to build facilities to meet the project’s water demands.

Generally, the costs of major facilities are paid by water users and can move ahead without being included in the state budget, which requires legislative approval.

Like other governors before him, however, Deukmejian has been reluctant to exercise the authority without first going to the Legislature for approval, because the issue is so politically and emotionally sensitive that no chief executive wants to take unilateral action.

Threats that he would go it alone if the Legislature did not approve his 1984 package enraged some legislators and hurt the governor’s chances for success.

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Some elements of the governor’s 1984 plan did not require legislative approval. Kennedy said the Administration is moving ahead in these areas.

For example, the Department of Water Resources is working on a $20-million plan to protect the Suisun Marsh, a brackish wetlands east of San Francisco Bay and one of the most important waterfowl habitats in the state.

Kennedy noted that state policy has shifted away from the construction of dams and large reservoirs, facilities that have often put those who want to develop the state’s water resources at odds with environmental groups.

A possible exception to this trend is the proposed Los Banos Grandes reservoir. The Legislature authorized spending $2 million a year to study the creation of the new reservoir west of Fresno.

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Kennedy said that with a few possible exceptions, like Los Banos, high costs have ended the era of the big reservoir.

“For a long time the philosophy was to build more and more reservoirs,” he said. “There are not many economical ones left.”

Instead, the state is committed to storing surplus water underground in natural basins, principally in the Central Valley and Southern California. Recharging these ground-water basins in wet years and then tapping the water when it is needed is far cheaper than dam construction, Kennedy said.

He noted that storage of surplus water in anticipation of a drought will still require building facilities to move the water from the delta.

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