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New Splash Over Water

An unfortunate new political dispute has broken out over the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. It involves the 15-year-long effort of a Northern California water district to augment its supplies by tapping the American River above Sacramento and piping the water around the delta.

To put it another way, the dispute is over a move by some of the people who encouraged a 9-1 Northern California vote against the Peripheral Canal in 1982. They are now trying to build something very like it for their own use. And it gives both north and south a chance to show that they learned something about how to handle such disputes with a bit of common sense, if not class.

Twenty-four California members of the House of Representatives, led by two Sacramento-area lawmakers, have protested the plan to the Interior Department, which contracted in 1970 to sell to the East Bay Municipal Utility District 150,000 acre-feet of American River water from the Folsom-South Project. Now joined by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, they want to require East Bay MUD to get its water out of the delta just like everyone else.

Some of the House members have joined the protest for varying reasons. The prime concern of Sacramento officials is that the diversion would threaten recreational flows on the Lower American River through the city of Sacramento. This is also the subject of a lawsuit that was brought against East Bay some years ago by the Save the American River Assn., the Environmental Defense Fund and Sacramento County. The suit has been referred to the state Water Resources Control Board for resolution of some technical matters.

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The proposed East Bay pipeline is, in a sense, an extension of its historic water supply, which has been piped from the Mokelumne River in the Sierra foothills across the delta to customers in Alameda and Contra Costa counties. In seeking to augment that supply in the 1960s, East Bay chose the American for its relatively pure water. It rejected a direct tap of the delta because of the hardness of the water and contamination by urban and agriculture drainage.

The Congress members claim that the American River diversion would deprive the delta of important fresh-water flows needed to maintain delta water quality. It is from the delta that the Metropolitan Water District and Kern County farmers get their State Water Project supplies. MWD argues that “it is irresponsible for one agency to proceed to divert water upstream of the delta until all water exporters together find a solution to the delta problem.”

The East Bay, which seems clearly to have the law on its side, is the victim of unfortunate political timing, caused in part by the delays imposed by the legal action. This flap comes just as many warring California water interests are attempting to reconcile longstanding disputes through negotiation. The East Bay-American River problem probably can be resolved in such fashion without a major pitched battle. Perhaps the Water Resources Control Board can be the forum.

In the meantime, the cause of California water peace will not be served by any further letters of protest from congressional groups.

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