Beyond the Drought

Mention water in California these days and people think of drought. But the current event with the greatest long-range implication for water use in the state is going on at a legalistic snail’s pace in the offices of the state Water Resources Control Board in Sacramento. In a series of hearings that started last year and will proceed well into 1989, the five appointees of Gov. George Deukmejian have set about the task of establishing new water-quality standards for the delta of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers and possibly also for San Francisco Bay.

The process, which already involves 600 sworn witnesses and 40,000 pages of exhibits, may sound arcane, but the bay-delta hearings may provide a historic turning point in how California allocates its water resources. It is difficult to overstate the importance of the delta because from that estuary comes the water that is vital to an estimated 17 million Californians and is the lifeblood of much of the state’s economy.

The board’s decisions will determine, for instance, just how the state and federal governments are permitted to operate the multibillion-dollar water collection and distribution projects that pump Sacramento and Feather river water to homes, industry and farms from the San Francisco Bay area to the Mexican border. In the minds of many, those decisions also will determine the environmental fate of one of the nation’s most important estuarial systems.


Much has happened in California since the board set the existing delta standards a decade ago. The California Supreme Court has formally recognized the maintenance of the environment as a legitimate function of water rights. The courts have vastly broadened the board’s authority to make water decisions affecting the entire state. And delta water quality has taken on new meaning because of evidence of chemicals in delta that might pose a health threat to millions of water users.

In the first phase of the hearings, competing interest groups have presented their demands for future supplies out of the delta. This summer, the board will adopt proposed water-quality and pollution-control plans.

A second set of hearings beginning in September will hear comments on the proposed plans. Phase III will focus on alternative proposals. Then finally, the board will issue new water-rights permits on the basis of its decisions.

While hundreds of witnesses have appeared, they generally fall into three sectors: government agencies, water-user organizations and environmental groups. Not surprisingly, everyone wants more water.

At this stage of the process, the contenders generally have presented extreme cases, which were reiterated by proponents during a Water Education Foundation conference in Sacramento this past week. Environmentalists argue that operation of the water projects has caused severe harm to both the delta and the bay and they want dramatic cutbacks in current water exports. Water-project chiefs claim that their operations actually have improved the delta environment and that there is no sign of any crisis in the bay. Project customers, citing escalating populations, want to pump even more water from the delta to the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California.

Most observers believe that the Deukmejian board is inclined toward more water development as opposed to environmental protection. But all recognize the board’s chairman, W. Don Maughn, as one of the most experienced and respected water arbiters around. Maughn has pledged to take a broad approach to the bay-delta issue and carefully weigh all needs for water, and sources of supply, before proposing a decision. Maughn’s strong and balanced leadership is the key to the process, for the board’s findings are likely to shape the California landscape for decades to come.