Egos Roil the Water

The California Legislature's water leaders cannot seem to resist the temptation to seek a comprehensive political solution to state water problems when in fact many of the most pressing problems are being dealt with just fine without the Legislature. There is merit to a number of the bills now before the Legislature, but the entire effort is jeopardized by renewed political infighting and the clash of legislative egos.

Not surprisingly, the most contentious point is the construction of a new channel to funnel more water across the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to the state Water Project pumps for export to Southern California. Past battles over the Peripheral Canal and Duke's Ditch could erupt all over again as the Legislature considers competing packages of bills sponsored by the chairmen of the Assembly and Senate water committees: Assemblyman Jim Costa (D-Fresno) and Sen. Ruben S. Ayala (D-Chino).

Both Costa and Ayala are proposing the construction of a new delta channel that would allow more Sacramento River water to reach the state pumps in the south end of the delta. Ayala in particular is insisting that the Deukmejian Administration set a construction schedule for such a channel by next January. Ayala wrote that language into his legislation even after David N. Kennedy, the director of the state Department of Water Resources, told Ayala repeatedly that the selection of a channel now is premature.

Costa's program also would authorize a cross-delta channel, but Costa at least has said that it should not be built until it is shown that other interim measures have failed to correct environmental damage caused by pumping from the delta. Costa's motives became somewhat suspect to Northern Californians and environmentalists, however, when he told a press conference that one of his goals indeed was to export more water to the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California.

Kennedy said that it would take at least 10 years to determine the need for a new channel, and its design. Meanwhile, the department wants to widen existing river channels and pursue other programs to allow increased pumping of delta water during high winter flows when environmental damage is at a minimum. "We will be completing one stage at a time, reviewing its results and then, if necessary, move forward again," he said. This incremental approach makes sense from a technical standpoint. Better yet, it promises to break through the key political problem of California water development without a major political confrontation.

The course that Kennedy is pursuing has considerable encouraging precedent. First there was the agreement with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation on joint operation of the state and federal water projects in the delta. Then Kennedy used the environmental-impact process to negotiate a fisheries restoration program in the delta. His suggestion that a similar forum be used for channel improvements in the southern delta has met with wide acceptance.

There still is need for legislation to repair and restore delta levees and to assure the maintenance of water quality in the delta. And the Legislature should consider carefully the proposal of former state Sen. John Nejedly of Contra Costa County to consolidate California water-policy authority in a single state agency.

The lack of legislative action in recent years does not mean that California has been standing still in the area of water development, as Ayala complains. Significant breakthroughs have been made without the guidance, or meddling, of the Legislature. The process may be methodical. It does not carry the glory of grand political achievement or credit-taking. But it has worked, and it should be allowed to proceed.

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