Water Policy Must Be More Than Mirage

State Sen. Art Torres (D-Los Angeles) is the chairman of the Toxics and Public Safety Management Committee.

Water--who pays and who benefits--is the linchpin of development in California.

Numerous battles have been fought over this issue, pitting Northern Californians concerned with the continued environmental health of San Francisco Bay, delta fisheries and northern rivers against San Joaquin Valley farmers seeking to ensure well-priced water for agriculture and Southern Californians seeking guaranteed water supplies. Since the overwhelming defeat of the Peripheral Canal initiative in 1982, the Legislature has been locked in a stalemate over the future of California's water policy.

The time has come for Californians--Southern Californians in particular--to reflect on, rather than simply react to, water issues. Recognizing the fiscal limitations confronting state and local governments, it is imperative that Southern Californians begin to assess the options more carefully instead of reacting in a knee-jerk fashion to any proposal that promises more water in future years.

The state Senate recently passed a bill that would appropriate $1.3 billion for water projects to bring additional water to Southern California and the San Joaquin Valley. Supporters contend that the projects are necessary to avert future water shortages in the Southland. A closer look at the legislation reveals that Southern Californians may be picking up the tab for water that we will never see. I recently requested the Senate Office of Research to evaluate three fundamental questions concerning the proposed water facilities: Where does the water go? Who pays for it? How much does it cost? The findings are astounding.

Southern California water consumers would pay 60% of the cost of new water projects, and yet, in the year 2000, we would receive only 0.2% of the new water in a year of normal rainfall and 3% in a dry year. None of it would go to the Metropolitan Water District or to the San Gabriel or San Bernardino Water District. Put another way, Southern California would be paying about $15,000 per acre-foot for the little water that they would receive from these facilities. Currently, Southern California pays $250 per acre-foot. The water projects envisioned in the bill would cost Southern California more than $214 million annually. There must be a cheaper way to ensure that the water needs of Southern California are met.

Who would get the rest of the water under the Senate-passed bill? The lion's share of additional water would go to farmers in the San Joaquin Valley. In the year 2000 they would receive 97% of the new water. They would also pay more than three times the amount that they currently pay for state water. These are not the best of times for California farmers. At least two irrigation districts in Kern County are on the verge of default. We ought to be extremely careful about adding to agriculture's financial burdens.

What is the wisest course with regard to future water policy? First, we must explore ways to make the best use of all our water resources. Conservation must be a cornerstone of those efforts. We must also seek cost-effective ways to meet our growing water needs. Proponents of the bill give the impression that if it fails there will be no additional water in the years ahead. That isn't true. A variety of agencies are already working to identify new water supplies.

The Metropolitan Water District has been particularly aggressive in identifying 1.2 million acre-feet of new water that could be obtained without the costly and divisive water projects under consideration in Sacramento. The district is working with the federal water project to buy 250,000 to 500,000 acre-feet of water over the next 25 years at $9 to $20 an acre-foot. The MWD has also identified approximately 800,000 acre-feet of water that may be available from the Colorado River.

One of the most promising efforts under way involves setting aside extra water in rainy years for use in dry years. Groundwater banking, as it is called, must be a top priority in our water policy in the years ahead. Conservation must also be a cornerstone. Recognizing this, the Senate adopted an amendment mandating conservation programs for 1 million acre-feet of water by the year 2000.

New technologies create new possibilities for making our water go further, as I witnessed during a recent trip to Israel. Techniques like drip irrigation have proved successful in growing abundant crops in the deserts of the Middle East. California can learn from those experiences.

We can no longer afford to blindly support expensive water projects like those embodied in the Senate bill. The path to consensus on comprehensive water policy lies in recognizing the legitimate concerns of our partners in the debate. The time has come to seek a truce in California's water wars. Through constructive dialogue we can forge water policy that preserves our most precious resource and protects the future of the state, whose economic lifeblood flows from a faucet.

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