What's the Rush?

The federal government is in too much of a hurry to sell off California's last big batch of uncommitted water, and Congress should put the brakes on the deal. At stake is about 1 million acre-feet of water--nearly twice as much as is used in the entire city of Los Angeles in a year, and enough to solve most of urban California's water problems for decades to come.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is preparing to issue 40-year contracts for the water next January, but Rep. Vic Fazio (D-Sacramento) is seeking legislation to delay the sale at least until next May. Even that is too early to commit so much water for so long--most of it being sought by agricultural users in the San Joaquin Valley served by the bureau's Central Valley Project.

Several major water issues are undecided or are being resolved at the present time. The outcomes could be dramatically affected by the availability of up to 1 million acre-feet of federal water.

One of those issues is the level of water quality that the Central Valley Project and the state Water Project must maintain in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, from which both projects pump massive amounts of water to the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California. The state Water Resources Control Board may rule that additional water must be allowed to flow through the delta and San Francisco Bay to meet the new water-quality standards. More water may be required to maintain wetlands and wildlife refuges. The bureau's 1 million acre-feet are a logical source.

Also unresolved is the growing crisis of pollution from irrigation-water runoff in the San Joaquin Valley, primarily in regions served by the Central Valley Project. Just one facet of the problem is the selenium contamination at the Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge. The bureau should not put more water under contract until some resolution of the drainage problem is assured.

Another uncertainty is the long-term demand for additional irrigation water in the San Joaquin Valley. Just this week it was disclosed that a large agriculture firm in Kern County is paying $1.4 million to get out of its contract for state Water Project supplies. The Pastoria Creek partnership, of which the Tejon Ranch holds a majority interest, has decided to allow 4,800 acres of crops to revert to rangeland for grazing livestock rather than pay an estimated $600,000 a year for the 14,000 acre-feet of water, enough to supply a small city. The water will be reallocated within Kern County, with some of it going to Bakersfield residents.

Other ranchers in Kern County have tried to sell their state project allotments but have been blocked by outdated legal and administrative barriers that hinder such transfers. The Interior Department is attempting to develop a procedure for allowing its water customers to market their unused water. Such a policy should be written into any new Bureau of Reclamation contracts.

Finally, a new movement is under way in the state Legislature that could lead to a merger of the federal Central Valley Project and the state Water Project into one state system. The greater efficiency of an integrated project would increase the water yield and contribute to more rational water allocation throughout California. The possibility of such a merger should be a consideration in the marketing of the 1 million acre-feet.

The bureau's water is not currently being wasted, since much of it is being sold on a year-to-year basis. The bureau should keep selling it that way until federal, state and local officials have a better picture of California's total water needs--agricultural, urban and environmental.

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