California, U.S. Sign a ‘Historic’ Accord on Water

Times Staff Writer

After 26 years of faltering negotiations, state and federal officials Monday signed what they called a “historic” water agreement that will help ensure Southern California water supplies in time of drought and clear the way for increased water shipments from the north.

Hailed by Gov. George Deukmejian as signaling “a new era” in state and federal cooperation, the agreement spells out how the massive federal and state water projects will work together to deliver water, while protecting the environmentally fragile Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and San Francisco Bay.

The agreement for the first time legally commits the federal government to help keep water fit for urban and agricultural use in Northern California, as well as supplying water needed to maintain the delta’s endangered fisheries and wildlife habitats.


It also calls for state and federal agencies to begin immediately negotiating a contract that would allow the state to purchase water from the federal Central Valley Project, a vast system of reservoirs, aqueducts and pumping stations.

In exchange, the California Water Project would move water by way of state aqueducts to federal customers, releasing substantial quantities for agricultural use and ending a moratorium on new federal water sales in place since 1979.

“We have turned away from dissension and deadlock to a more promising era of balance and benefits shared by all water users,” said U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner C. Dale Duvall at the signing ceremony.

Environmentalists also voiced approval.

“This guarantees more outflow to San Francisco Bay, which is long overdue,” said Thomas J. Graff, an attorney for the Environmental Defense Fund.

Officials of the state Department of Water Resources and the federal Bureau of Reclamation reached a tentative agreement on the new water policy more than a year ago, but the proposal was subject to congressional approval. The water bill was finally approved last month, but only after lawmakers added a provision requiring congressional ratification of the contract for selling federal water to the state.

Water has always been the vital fluid needed to nurture and sustain the growing population and flourishing agriculture of the West. And like all the other interests battling over California’s water supplies, the federal and state water bureaucracies have long been locked in combat over how to use the precious resource.


Since the 1940s, the federal Central Valley Project has shipped water out of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, primarily for agricultural use. The federal system, which includes the water stored in Lake Shasta, can store more water than it can convey to its customers. The surplus water amounts to as much as 1 million acre-feet--enough to supply the needs of 1 million households for a year.

In contrast, the California Water Project has plenty of capacity in its aqueducts but a much more limited water supply behind its reservoirs. About half the state water is used for farming, the other half for urban use in the growing population centers of Southern California.

In 1960, state and federal water officials signed an initial agreement on how the two systems would work together, but the document left a number of issues unresolved.

The years that followed have been marked by bitterly fought lawsuits, occasional tentative agreements and almost continual disputes and negotiations.

The most difficult issue has been agreeing to the role that the federal Central Valley Project must play in providing water to protect the delta and San Francisco Bay by releasing water during the seasons when river levels are lowest.

The two massive water projects pump so much water out of the delta that in summer months, the San Joaquin River flows backward. The pumping can also draw saline water from San Francisco Bay into the delta. The water quality for several Northern California communities that draw their supplies from the delta deteriorates markedly during the low-flow months.


To counteract the adverse effects, water users, along with environmental and sportfishing groups, for years have been clamoring for increased releases into the delta of fresh water stored in federal and state reservoirs.

The situation becomes even more acute during drought years.

During the drought of 1976 and 1977, the Bureau of Reclamation refused to release water from its reservoirs that state officials believed was essential to maintain drinking water quality in the delta, as well as for environmental protection. The state was forced to tap its own reservoirs to keep the delta water levels up and had difficulty meeting the needs of users that depend on the California Water Project.

The new agreement will mean that the state and federal water projects will share responsibility for delta water quality in the next drought, state Water Resources Director David N. Kennedy said.

State and federal negotiators are already at work on a contract that would give the state a share of the federal project’s water in exchange for agreeing to move water to federal customers by way of the state’s aqueducts, Kennedy said. Completion of a contract could take two to three years, he said.

“I’m sure we’ll buy some water,” he said.