Water for the Future

The scare stories about future water shortages in California should be put to rest following the publication of the state Department of Water Resources' periodic assessment of water needs and supply. By and large, California will have enough water to support an expanding population, of up to 36 million by the year 2010, according to the report issued recently by Department Director David N. Kennedy.

There are a number of conditions, of course. The report assumes the construction of about$800 million in water storage and transfer projects to increase the yield of the state Water Project. It assumes a rather dramatic drop-off in agricultural water use compared with projections from previous years. It assumes considerable water conservation. And it notes that its forecasts could be changed by legal rulings involving the diversion of water for environmental protection.

The bottom line is that no grandiose fix or panicky crash program is needed to meet the state's expected water needs. The key to the future lies in prudent management of existing supplies. One environmental group appropriately called the report "fair, cautious and conservative." That is the way water forecasting ought to be.

Even with development of new storage projects, the one deficit area of the state would be coastal Southern California with a shortage of up to 400,000 acre-feet--about one-fifth of the current annual supply distributed by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. But a number of factors could close that gap, including surplus water in the Colorado River system and even greater irrigation cutbacks by farm interests.

The central fact of water in California still is that agriculture consumes 83% of all developed supplies and urban use 17%. As water costs increase, irrigation of marginal crops no longer will be economical and a decline in agricultural use is likely, especially if crop subsidies are reduced. Higher cost and farm drainage problems also will encourage farmers to adopt increasingly efficient irrigation methods.

The DWR's report should convince the Legislature that it would be unproductive to renew last year's bitter debate over legislation that would have the effect of increasing exports of Northern California water to the south. There is no water crisis that needs to be solved in the immediate future. Water differences between Northern and Southern Californians can more profitably be worked out outside the political pressures and tensions of the legislative chambers.

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