Water Wars Churn as Panel Favors Delta Plan

Times Staff Writer

Legislation that would provide more surplus northern water for use in the fertile San Joaquin Valley and rapidly growing Southern California took a major step forward in the Assembly on Wednesday.

The Southern-dominated Ways and Means Committee, with help from a handful of northern lawmakers, voted 15 to 3 to endorse the measure.

The bill, opposed by environmental organizations, envisions transfer of additional water to the south by widening and deepening sloughs and rivers in the ecologically delicate Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. It also would permit construction of a new canal across 13 miles of the estuary.

In addition, the bill by Assemblyman Jim Costa (D-Fresno), would seek to improve the quality of water for both the Delta and for export, protect threatened fisheries, rehabilitate deteriorating levees and provide additional flood protection.

However, environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club and the Planning and Conservation League, along with legislators representing the Delta region and San Francisco Bay Area, maintain that the Costa plan provides only a hollow shell of protection while abandoning environmental safeguards contained in previous proposals.

As a consequence, the divisive North vs. South water wars of years past have been revived in this legislative session with environmental interests pitted against developers who cite the need for more water for the growing south.

In an attempt to bring harmony to the opposing factions, former Gov. Edmund G. (Pat) Brown, under whose leadership voters in 1960 gave the go-ahead to the California Water Project, made an unusual appearance before the committee.

Plea for Compromise

"I want to emphasize the need for some compromise by everyone," Brown told the lawmakers. "If the California Water Project bond issue had not passed . . . this state would really be in a tough situation (now)."

For the most part, however, his words seemed to fall on deaf ears as the committee rejected a series of environmental amendments.

But one important amendment, offered by Assemblyman Frank Hill (R-Whittier), who usually is not regarded as an environmentalist, did pass to the delight of conservation lobbyists and the despair of water developer representatives.

The Hill proposal would require that water development facilities constructed under the bill be operated in such a way that any adverse consequences on fish and wildlife in the Delta, San Francisco Bay or nearby Suisun Bay would be "fully offset."

Wary of Lawsuits

Costa, who argued that his bill already contained such safeguards, protested that the Hill amendment would merely invite protracted lawsuits by opponents and "ensure that we never do anything" to either protect the Delta or export additional water.

Hill called his amendment a "compromise" and noted that it would be far less restrictive than a similar provision in a 1980 bill that called for diverting Sacramento River water around the Delta in a peripheral canal for delivery south. The voters rejected the peripheral canal plan in a 1982 referendum.

"It's a victory for us," said Planning and Conservation League lobbyist Gerald H. Meral of the Hill proposal, which drew support from both northern and southern committee members. However, Raymond E. Corley Jr. of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which backs the Costa plan, said the Hill amendment "is pretty close to fatal" and that he may ask MWD directors to reconsider their backing of the bill.

He said a provision requiring the Department of Fish and Game to "quantify the impact" on fish and wildlife of water development in the region was probably impossible to accomplish and the amendment "takes fish protections way beyond what I think my board will buy into."

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