Water: a New Spirit

Almost everyone interested in water development in California has united with uncommon enthusiasm behind Rep. George Miller’s bill to ratify an agreement on joint operation of the California Water Project and the federal Central Valley Project in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

The measure sponsored by the Contra Costa County Democrat passed the U.S. House last week on a voice vote. There was some talk of getting a full Senate vote without even the need for committee hearings. That will not happen, however, and the bill has been referred to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

With such unanimous California support, the Miller bill should have no serious problems in the Senate. But it might. The pitfall could come if the Reagan Administration decides to openly oppose a provision of the bill requiring the federal Treasury to pick up the cost of federal water supplies used to maintain state water-quality standards in the delta. The estimated cost is about $1 million a year, and it is labeled by the Miller bill as “non-reimbursable.”

In bureaucratic jargon, reimbursable portions of reclamation projects are those that are repaid by project customers, such as the cost of irrigation water supplied to farmers. Non-reimbursable costs are those like flood control or reclamation that are considered a benefit to the taxpayers at large. The government foots the bill for those.

The major purpose behind the agreement between the state Department of Water Resources and the Sacramento office of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation was to get the federal project, with its abundant water supplies, to join the state in assuring a fresh-water supply in the delta. The delta is where the giant state and federal pumps pick up Northern California water for use on farms in the San Joaquin Valley and in cities and towns throughout Southern California.


Keeping the delta fresh requires the free flow of a certain amount of Sacramento River water out to San Francisco Bay. Fiscal wizards in the federal Office of Management and Budget seem to believe that someone should pay the government for this water. The Bureau of Reclamation’s farm customers are the only ones who could be charged.

This is a shortsighted, penny-pincher’s argument, and it threatens to undercut the entire deal. The delta is one of the nation’s most productive estuaries--including agriculture production, fish and waterfowl habitat and recreation. A vibrant delta is a true national asset, not just a parochial California matter. A stagnant delta would threaten agriculture production in the San Joaquin Valley and the quality of domestic water supplies for 13 million Southern Californians.

Peripheral benefits of the agreement would far outweigh any federal cost of the water lost to the bay and the Pacific Ocean. The pact would permit surplus federal water to be sold to new customers in Southern California, and would allow the Bureau of Reclamation to use excess state canal capacity to provide more water to its farm clients in the San Joaquin Valley. That means cash for the Treasury.

Above all, the federal-state agreement signals a new spirit of cooperation between previously warring regions of California. It could open the way to the settlement of disputes that have deadlocked water-development plans affecting all of California and, indirectly, the entire Southwest.

The national Administration should catch the spirit and give its hearty endorsement to the Miller bill now.