Water Development Bill Squeaks Through Senate

Times Staff Writer

The Senate overcame the stiff opposition of northern members and voted narrow approval Monday for a major water development bill that would pave the way for the export of more surplus water to San Joaquin Valley farmers and populous Southern California.

The measure's author, Sen. Ruben Ayala (D-Chino), while successfully staving off all but one amendment in a barrage of proposed changes by northerners, served notice that his legislation is far from final, however, and will be subject to compromise in the Assembly.

A 21-15 vote, almost exactly along north-south lines and precisely the majority required, sent the controversial proposal to the Assembly.

The only Southern Californians to vote no were Sens. Herschel Rosenthal (D-Los Angeles) and Gary K. Hart (D-Santa Barbara), both widely regarded as environmentalists and allies of those who want to protect the ecology of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and San Francisco Bay.

Although the floor fight lasted almost two hours, it lacked the passion of previous legislative water fights. In advance, northerners conceded that they lacked the numbers to block the bill and expressed hope that the Assembly would rewrite it.

Gov. George Deukmejian, in an interview with a small group of reporters, reasserted Monday that he is neutral on Ayala's bill but indicated he is sympathetic to environmental protection interests.

"Before there is any major transfer of water" from north to south, he said, "the legitimate concerns" of environmentalists and San Francisco Bay Area communities "will need to be satisfactorily addressed."

Ayala's bill, basically, would require the Deukmejian Administration to determine facilities to transfer water out of the delta by July 1, 1988, and to take steps to build and operate those facilities by July, 1989.

Current law empowers the executive branch of government to undertake such a development, but no recent administration has done so because the issue is politically explosive.

A transfer facility in the delta, the collection point of northern water for shipment to the south and for flushing the San Francisco Bay, is not specified in the bill. In previous legislation, the means of transfer was designated as the Peripheral Canal, which was proposed to take Sacramento River water around the estuary and pour it into pumps that would send it south. A Peripheral Canal plan was rejected by Northern California voters in 1982.

Northerners have long expressed fear that siphoning away additional supplies of surplus water to the south would deal irreparable damage to the delta and the bay. At the same time, southern water interests have demanded more water.

Ayala's bill also would call for construction of two storage reservoirs in Contra Costa County, building of a mid-valley canal to connect with the federal Central Valley Project and require construction by Jan. 1, 1990, of the proposed Los Banos Grandes Reservoir in Merced County.

The legislation also calls for protection of fish and wildlife, improvement of water quality in the delta and additional flood control.

Northerners submitted amendment after amendment that would seek what they saw as improved environmental protections for the delta and bay. All but one was turned aside, although in some cases a sprinkling of southern legislators voted for the northern proposals.

The amendment that won approval, by Sen. Nicholas Petris (D-Oakland), called for establishment of a plan that would conserve 1 million acre-feet of water a year starting in 2000. Petris said it would apply statewide, but Ayala argued that, as written, it would apply only to State Water Project users in the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California.

Ayala and Petris huddled and agreed to work out amendments later that would assure that the conservation program would apply without question to the entire state.

As one northern amendment after another met defeat, some northern senators complained that they had not been given even a scrap or crumb by Ayala. But Ayala indicated that tough negotiations lie ahead in the Assembly and said he is prepared to accept amendments there.

"If I give all I have to my friends here," he told the Senate, "I will have nothing to give my friends there (in the Assembly.)"

Sen. Art Torres (D-Los Angeles) argued that the estimated $1.2-billion to $2.2-billion bill would unfairly hit Southern California water ratepayers while they would receive a minuscule amount of additional water. Torres did not vote on the bill.

Citing a new report by the Senate Office of Research, Torres said that if 2000 is a year of average rainfall, Southern California ratepayers would pay 60% of the total cost and receive 0.2% of the water.

The report further said that if 2000 was a dry year, Southern Californians would pay 60% of the cost and receive 3% of the water.

"For those of us from Southern California, beware," Torres told the Senate. "We no longer can be the knee-jerkers for water projects."

Ayala deplored the report as being without credibility.

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