Longtime Foes in Water Wars Agree on Levee Repairs

Times Staff Writer

Southern and Northern California legislators made peace Wednesday, at least temporarily, and approved a $120-million compromise plan to repair deteriorating levees in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

State Water Resources Director David Kennedy estimated that the $120 million in state funds would be more than tripled by a federal contribution of up to $400 million.

Diverse Support

The Assembly Water Committee's approval of legislation containing the compromise occurred as members expressed astonishment that any water bill could attract support from such traditional adversaries as northerners and southerners and environmentalists and water contractors.

Historically, the north has jealously guarded its water against what it has perceived as a ruthless series of attempted water grabs over the years by the populous and rapidly developing south.

Conservationists have long opposed water development projects that they maintain would harm the natural environment. But water contractors have insisted that additional water must be exported to the south to meet the expanding needs of people, agriculture and industry.

As a result, virtually any bill that even remotely deals with sending more Northern California water south has immediately become another chapter in the ongoing north vs. south water fights in the Legislature.

But all that was seemingly put aside for another day as the Water Committee voted 9-1 approval of the delta levee repair bill carried by Sen. Daniel E. Boatwright (D-Concord). The bill was sent to the Ways and Means Committee.

The proposal, supported by the Deukmejian Administration, was fashioned late last month as virtually all sides agreed that no water development legislation would be enacted this year. Such proposals failed last year and during previous sessions.

As various participants described it, drafters of the compromise realized that protection of the delta levees is "good for everyone" and such a bill would be the only one likely to emerge from this session of the Legislature.

Significantly, the bill would neither authorize nor prohibit construction of facilities that would increase exports to the south.

The 1,100 miles of levees in the scenic delta serve as channels for waterways and protect scores of islands from flooding. But they have become victims of deterioration, and in the last eight years levees have broken, inundating 13 islands during winter floods.

Delta Is Source

It is from the delta that surplus northern water is pumped and shipped to the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California via the California Aqueduct.

However, if levees were to fail, particularly in the western section of the estuary, the quality of exported water would be severely degraded.

When delta levees break, fresh water that normally flows out of the delta to San Francisco Bay suddenly overflows the islands. The diminished freshwater outflow allows the salt water from San Francisco Bay to back up into the delta, degrading the quality of water usually pumped for use in the delta and for export to Southern California.

The Boatwright bill specifies rehabilitating levees surrounding eight critically important islands in the western delta.

"This is a very important day in California for we have reached agreement on the plumbing in the delta," declared committee chairman Jim Costa (D-Fresno), author of a stalled water package.

Indeed, when the roll was called, northern, southern and San Joaquin Valley members of the committee voted "aye." The only opposition vote was cast by northerner Chris Chandler (R-Yuba City).

'Equitable Compromise'

"I believe this to be an equitable compromise," testified Sen. Ruben S. Ayala (D-Chino), chairman of the Senate Water Committee and perhaps the most tenacious author of water development bills in the Legislature.

Such traditional adversaries as Ray Corley of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and Corey Brown of the environmentalist Planning and Conservation League sat at the same table and voiced support for the bill, perhaps a first in the long history of legislative water fights.

"For the time being, the leverage game is no longer active in Sacramento, at least on this issue," Costa observed, noting that in the future water issues may be dealt with on a "case-by-case" basis instead of in huge legislative packages.

Over the next decade, $12 million a year will be spent in state funds for levee repairs, compared with the $2 million currently authorized but not always spent. Since 1980, the federal government has spent about $92 million on emergency levee reconstruction while state and local levee districts have provided only about $24 million.

Hastening the compromise over the delta were repeated warnings from officials of the Federal Emergency Management Agency that California faced a cutoff in levee repair funds unless it demonstrated a substantial commitment to rehabilitate and better maintain the vast levee system.

The bill also calls for spending $50 million during the next decade for water quality improvement and additional protection for fish and wildlife in the delta, San Francisco Bay and the Salton Sea.

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