Battle Will Be Between Farms, Environment : New Kind of Water War Seen in ’88

United Press International

California’s next water war will begin about the middle of 1988, and the issue will be over taking water away from farmers to help the environment.

It will be different from the noisy water battles earlier in the 1980s.

In those, allocating water could be seen simply as a North-South dispute. The issue was whether more Northern California water should be made available to the cities of Southern California and the farm interests in the lower San Joaquin Valley.

The battle lines for the next controversy are being drawn in a series of dry, technical hearings that the state Water Resources Control Board has been holding since June. The board is under court order to upgrade the water quality in San Francisco Bay and the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.


That means finding more water for the bay and delta. The question is where to get it.

One way is to find water that nobody has claimed yet. There is a little left, but not too much. More might be wrung out by conservation measures.

The other way is to take water away from somebody who holds present or future rights to it. That means either getting it from cities or getting it from agriculture, either below the delta in the San Joaquin Valley or above the delta in the Sacramento Valley.

If there is going to be a sacrifice, the best bet is that agriculture will be asked to make it.


The latest population estimate of the state Department of Finance says that most Californians live in growing cities. About 15.6 million of them--or 57%--live in the heavily urbanized region south of the Tehachapis.

They already rely partly on Northern California water, along with what they get from local sources and the Colorado River.

The idea of tampering with the water supply of that many Southern California voters is enough to frighten any politician with ambitions for the future.

So getting water from the farmers, a diminishing fraction of the state’s population, is politically easier.

One way or another, the board expects to come up with a plan by mid-1988 and put it out for public debate. That’s when the argument starts.

In 1980, emotional Northern California voters ganged up to beat the Peripheral Canal ballot proposal. It would have made more and cleaner water available to the lower end of the state.

In 1984, urban liberal Democrats in the state Senate rallied just enough votes in their house to block a proposal by Republican Gov. George Deukmejian to widen the channels in the lower part of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. Deukmejian’s plan was modest, compared to the Peripheral Canal, but it still would have enabled shipment of more water southward.

Since then, the whole climate of California water politics has been changed by two landmark court decisions that laid down two new legal ideas.


One key point in both decisions is that the state, in deciding how water is to be used, must consider the value of water to the environment.

State Can Cut Rights

The other is that the state, in the public’s interest, has the power to take away water rights it has granted to people in the past.

The first point was laid down by the California Supreme Court in February, 1983. It came in one of the many lawsuits between environmentalists trying to preserve Mono Lake and the City of Los Angeles, which gets part of its water supply by diverting streams away from Mono. The Supreme Court ruled that “navigable water” is a “public trust.” In effect, it said the public’s interest in Mono water would have to be considered along with that of Los Angeles.

The second point was made in a decision by Presiding Justice John Racanelli of the state 1st District Court of Appeal in San Francisco in June, 1986.

Standards Drawn Up

Racanelli’s decision leads directly to the water controversy now certain to break out next year.

In 1978, the state water board drew up a set of standards for water quality in the delta, as the law requires it to do at intervals.


Environmentalists, alarmed by the delta’s declining fisheries and water quality, challenged the 1978 standards in court. They were joined by others who objected for different reasons.

Racanelli, upholding a San Francisco Superior Court decision, ruled the board hadn’t done enough to protect the delta. He went further, and told the five-member board it has the power to get more water for the delta by whittling down water rights it had granted other users in the past.