Making Water History

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California took considerable undeserved heat this past week for its offer to sell 55,000 acre-feet of water to drought-starved San Francisco and Santa Clara County. The critics demanded to know how the Met could come up with surplus water in the third year of a drought, enough to supply nearly half a million urban residents for a year, to share with its archenemies in the San Francisco Bay area. How could the Met do this when it had just turned back about 200,000 acre-feet of its 1989 allocation from the state Water Project, and when it claims that the region’s economic future is at risk if it is forced to suffer any future cutbacks in water imports from Northern California?

Making the offer seem even more imprudent, Metropolitan--along with the city of Los Angeles--soon will embark on ambitious conservation programs. And then there was the implication by some that there should be no sharing unless Northern Californians agree to some form of the old Peripheral Canal to expedite further water deliveries from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. Northerners voted 9 to 1 against the canal in 1982, and are not about to embrace it now.

As of today, the week’s fuss may be moot, since the state Department of Water Resources appears to have located another source of drought-emergency water--in Yuba County, north of Sacramento--for sale to the Bay Area water agencies. Metropolitan’s water may not be needed after all.

Still, it is worth setting the record straight on the criticism. The Met’s 55,000 acre-feet of water was not surplus or excess. But the Southland is in relatively better shape than the north this year because it still is able to take all that it can pump from the Colorado River, although Colorado supplies will be severely cut back in several years.


Bay Area agencies imposed mandatory rationing last year, and still are desperately short of water. The Met’s offer had the effect of demonstrating again, as during the 1976-77 drought, that California can be one state when it comes to water--not just warring factions of north and south. No quid pro quo was demanded or expected.

The 200,000 acre-feet supposedly turned back to the state Water Project was the amount to which the Met is entitled under its long-term contracts but that never would have been delivered this year because the project is so short of supplies. The state’s farm customers already have been warned that their normal allocations will be cut by 40%. The 200,000 acre-feet amounts to about 5% of the Southland’s total annual usage.

In view of the crisis in Northern California, Metropolitan’s offer to San Francisco and Santa Clara was a reasonable one--an attempt to share and balance the shortages within the context of a general California problem. While critics in Southern California second-guessed Metropolitan’s judgment and offered legalistic arguments against the sale, the northerners weren’t being fussy--just as long as the water was wet.