California's Historic Water Battles Now Seem Soluble for the Century

Bill Stall is a Times editorial writer.

The first snow has frosted the Sierra. The election is history. And, as sure as the next drought is just around the corner, some legislative leaders will be dusting off pet solutions to California water problems for the forthcoming session in Sacramento. That is unfortunate, for it may be that the wisest thing the Legislature can do in the coming year is to leave water alone.

After all, the Legislature largely shunned major water issues during the past two years for political reasons, and meanwhile, California's water outlook took a great leap forward; in fact, the threat of a Southern California water shortage may have been pushed into the 21st Century.

Burned by the defeat of his water plan in 1984, Gov. George Deukmejian did not intend to jump back into the water wars at least until after his 1986 campaign for reelection. With no enthusiasm in the governor's office for another bitter round of water wrangling, there was little impetus in the Legislature to push a grand, comprehensive solution to the problem.

The truce was welcomed throughout the California water community, which represents almost every Californian in some fashion. Southern California, in particular, still was in shock over the 1982 defeat of the ballot plan to complete the State Water Project as conceived back in 1960. The ballot proposal provided for construction of a peripheral canal to route water around the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, along with new storage reservoirs and other facilities.

The 1982 proposal failed largely because Northern Californians voted 9-1 against it. It failed also because one part of California had its concept of the state's water problems and their solutions; another part of California had a dramatically different view. The flaw in the Southern California view was that the only, narrow, answer to projected water shortages in the south was to accept 25-year-old engineering decisions and export more water from the north via, or around, the environmentally sensitive delta.

So the two-year hiatus in grand water planning was in large part a reflection of political reality, but it was also partly due to the inability of Southern California to find a workable alternative or alternatives to the peripheral canal, which had no credibility in Northern California.

But a curious thing happened during those two years. A variety of events that occurred entirely outside the influence of the Legislature and the governor have dramatically reshaped the California water picture. The cumulative result is that Southern California may be able to develop enough water, in fact, to eliminate the need for a peripheral canal consisting of an isolated concrete ditch that funnels Sacramento River water around the delta and into the state water pumps at Tracy.

Southern Californians and state engineers still will seek ways to move more water more efficiently across the delta via a channel or channels of some sort. But it is clear now that such a solution cannot be achieved without accommodating the needs and fears of other affected interests, including environmentalists, fish and wildlife groups, farmers in the delta and the San Joaquin Valley, plus others. All these associations have demonstrated their political power; they cannot simply be bowled over by Southern California population statistics, either in the Legislature or a statewide election.

The major occurrences of the past two years that have significantly reordered California's complex water equation:

--The Coordinated Operating Agreement. Ratified by Congress and signed by President Reagan on Oct. 27, this pact provides for joint operation of the State Water Project and the federal Central Valley Water Project in a manner that assures environmental protection of the delta and San Francisco Bay, a key demand of Northern Californians. A side effect is that considerable additional northern water may be available for export to the south. The impetus for this agreement came largely from Northern California, but the south benefits, too.

--A landmark legal ruling by Justice John T. Racanelli of the California 1st District Court of Appeal. The decision significantly enhanced the authority of the State Water Resources Control Board to establish water quality standards in the delta and San Francisco Bay, and anywhere else in California; upheld the Public Trust Doctrine that requires consideration of environmental values in allocating water rights, and declared that all water rights decisions must take into account the broad public interest. The Supreme Court has upheld the decision.

--Decline of the California farm economy. While there is a demand for more water in some farming areas, much of California agriculture is in a severe recession. In southern portions of the San Joaquin Valley, many farmers are eager to sell water rights; some have not been able to afford to make payments on water they contracted for years ago.

--Conservation and innovation. The state is increasingly pushing farmers to conserve irrigation water. The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and Imperial Irrigation District are engaged in off-and-on negotiations for a major supply of conserved water from Imperial. New state laws encourage the sale or trade of unneeded farm supplies to urban water systems, where the major demand is. Both the MWD and the state Department of Water Resources are embarking on ambitious projects to store surplus water in underground aquifers, thus alleviating some of the need for new water projects and allowing more pumping from the delta during the spring runoff period, when such pump actions do not create environmental problems.

-- Water quality. There is increasing concern about contamination of waters entering the delta from irrigation and industrial runoff. This development has tended to bring Northern and Southern California interests together. The north traditionally has fought for delta protection as a matter of dogma. The south, including valley farmers, now realize that it is in their interest to keep delta water clean. Bad water in the delta means bad water on valley crops, or coming out of Southern California faucets. Also, the problem of dealing with contaminated irrigation runoff makes it more difficult for additional farm land to be brought into production if doing that will contribute to the waste water problem.

-- Consensus. A variety of organizations have formed in recent years to develop a consensus solution to California water problems. They have arisen in the north, the south and the San Joaquin Valley. All have approached the subject with a spirit of cooperation resulting in at least one significant achievement--a unified California effort in Congress behind the federal-state Coordinated Operating Agreement.

So what happens now?

In an ideal world, the consensus groups would all come together and develop a grand agreement. But that is not likely to happen all by itself. Each group has its own priorities and they do not always coincide. The missing ingredient is political leadership with the authority and ability to force concessions from each representative group to achieve the best solution for all of California.

The obvious source of such leadership--perhaps the only source--is the governor's office. Experience in both Arizona and Colorado has demonstrated that the only factor that could bring warring regional and economic groups together on historic water issues was a governor determined not to fail.

Unfortunately, some water leaders in the Legislature are likely to go into the 1987 session with their own cast-in-concrete solutions to California's water wars--too many of them centering on some plan that has only one major purpose, to export more water south from the delta. Recent history has demonstrated that such an approach does not work. The issue is too complex and too important for the Legislature to deal with using old terms and old engineering plans.

Nor should Deukmejian necessarily try to achieve a comprehensive new water plan in the first six months of this session, or even this year. To his credit, the governor has already said he is no longer certain that the major through-delta facility he supported in the past is necessary now, in view of changing conditions.

The State Water Resources Control Board will open a new series of bay-delta water rights hearings in July that is likely to last for two years. Armed with its new authority from the Racanelli decision, and under its new leadership in Chairman Don Maughan, the board might significantly alter the ground rules for delta water allocation, perhaps affecting water balances throughout much of California. An argument could be made that no major construction in the delta should be attempted until the board's decisions are made.

But it is important that the governor seize the opportunity now to build on the considerable gains recently made outside the Legislature and governor's office. He should take advantage of a new generation of water leaders in sectors outside Sacramento. He should seek broad policy goals before promoting specific projects. He should resist the temptation to try to solve all the state's water problems in one package, if that proves to be impossible.

Given California's history of struggle over water, the new spirit may turn out to be only a deceptive calm between storms. But the achievements of recent months are real ones that seemed idealistic and unattainable not so long ago. The opportunity to build on this encouraging record could be lost without the added element of patient, firm leadership.

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