Remember This One? Let’s Build a Peripheral Canal : Water: With counties broke, schools in decline, public health a disgrace and highways in disrepair, a new water system is hardly an urgent necessity.

<i> William Kahrl is an associate editor with McClatchy Newspapers and editor of "The California Water Atlas." </i>

Once again, as whenever there’s a change of administrations in Sacramento, the die-hard supporters of a Peripheral Canal for California are rising to snuff the political winds for signs of change, asking one another, “Is it time yet?”

Already the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, principal beneficiary of any such expansion of the state water system, is beginning to stir itself behind the scenes and environmentalists are convening press conferences to decry the back-room maneuvering to revive this most hardy of perennial political issues.

Even state Sen. Ruben S. Ayala (D-Chino), the Legislature’s battered champion of new water development, promises that next year, drought or no drought, he’ll be carrying a bill to build a new water conduit around the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, even if there’s no water to put in it.

How much has really changed since the last time this battle was joined in 1982? Is the Peripheral Canal or something like it any more of a practical possibility today than it was before Gov. George Deukmejian took office?


The canal has been such a great subject for debate for so long, nearly 50 years now, that most of the participants can play each other’s parts. For the first few decades, for example, it was a federal project that the state opposed. More recently the two have reversed sides. Environmental groups that once opposed it now think it’s a great idea for protecting delta water quality; agricultural corporations that once looked forward to tapping the increased water supplies a canal would bring southward have fought hardest to keep it from ever being built.

In this endlessly shifting tapestry of conflicting interests, one thing is certain: We had no business fighting over it in the 1970s. The Peripheral Canal has always been a project for the next century. The fact that the issue came up at all in the late 1970s had more to do with then-Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr.'s political ambitions than any actual water shortages. Presented with a succession of ballot issues to authorize and then rescind approval of its construction, not even the endlessly inventive MWD statisticians could make a persuasive case that the project was needed in 1982.

Some of that has changed. There are almost 3.5 million more people drawing water from the state system now, mostly in the Southern California coast area. But neither of the two major party candidates for governor seems interested in providing the kind of strong commitment to new construction that would be needed to put across such a project with such a history of controversy. Pete Wilson, who supported the canal in 1982, now says it’s no longer relevant to California’s changing water needs. Dianne Feinstein, who once opposed it, now hedges somewhat, saying that she wouldn’t support such a facility until new water standards for the delta were adopted.

The problem for canal supporters is that no matter who wins in November, he or she will inherit a state government on the verge of financial chaos. It is unlikely that the budget compromise adopted in July will hold together long enough even for Deukmejian to get out of office in January. With counties in bankruptcy, schools in decline, public health a disgrace and the state’s bridges and highways in desperate need of repair, where does building a new water system fit on a list of urgent necessities?


The second big question for project proponents is whether there’s a Legislature. The issue isn’t whether there’s leadership in the Senate and Assembly that can work effectively with the next governor, but rather whether there’s any institution at all there capable of addressing complex and important issues. The state Legislature’s record on the budget, insurance reform and hundreds of other critical issues this year is not reassuring.

Finally, for any progress, the debate has to be moved into a forum where decisions can be made. For the last six years it’s been idling in the State Water Resources Control Board, where it has become mired in a potentially endless discussion of fish. To a large extent, that’s been to everyone’s political advantage. Those who don’t like Deukmejian’s appointees to the water board don’t want this administration to make any decisions on water exports. And the governor’s crowd, having done so little about anything else for eight years, has been content to maintain that record on delta water issues as well.

But even if a strong new governor wanted to change all that, there would be an overwhelming political, practical and public-policy argument for delaying any development until after the state water board completed its hearings on delta water quality. That would put any prospect for a Peripheral Canal into the second term of the next administration, four years away at a minimum.

The last battle over the project in 1982 should have lessons for everyone concerned. One is that environmentalists didn’t kill the project in 1982; the canal’s most effective opposition came from those it was intended to serve. The Boswell Co. and a handful of other agribusiness companies decided they would rather have no project at all than one that was bound by some of the environmental constraints that Jerry Brown had negotiated with the Legislature.

The second lesson of those political wars is that Southern California cannot carry the project alone. The proponents of the project concentrated their political spending on the areas served by MWD, and were soundly defeated as a result.

How much has changed today? MWD is certainly more unified than ever. There was no good reason, for example, for the city of Los Angeles to support a Peripheral Canal in 1982 other than the fact that its mayor was running for governor that year. Los Angeles in those days didn’t take much of its water allotment from MWD, preferring its cheaper, higher-quality supplies in the eastern Sierra. But the equation is much different now. With its access to Mono Lake and the Owens Valley increasingly restricted by the courts, Los Angeles today is just as dependent as MWD’s other members upon a continually expanding supply of water.

On the agricultural side, however, certainly no one can promise that Boswell or someone else won’t break ranks again. The phrase “organized agriculture” has always been something of an oxymoron in California. Agribusiness’ influence, moreover, is vastly diminished from what it was in 1982. At this point eight years ago, agriculture was riding extraordinarily high. In that year alone, it succeeded in strangling a plan at the state level for ground-water regulation and in gutting acreage limitations required by federal reclamation law. Agribusiness campaign contributions also blocked delta water-quality standards proposed as part of the Peripheral Canal plan, and helped to elect a new governor who believed he owed his political life to the corporations of the Central Valley--and spent his first term acting accordingly.

None of those things are still true. The big land companies that used to cast a huge shadow across the political and economic life of the Golden State just don’t loom so large anymore in comparison with all of the other bigger and richer companies that now do business here.


As a result, there’s a new question that past California governors never had occasion to ask: Does it really make sense to invest public funds in further expansion of irrigated agriculture? Or to put it another way, if the next governor has only a limited amount of money to invest in rebuilding California’s infrastructure, are there other public-works projects that would give more economic bang for the buck?

All of these changes mean that the relationship among the various elements of the constituency for a peripheral canal has shifted as well. In 1960, for example, agribusiness needed the backing of MWD to win popular support for initial construction of a state water project that had been conceived for the benefit of the Central Valley. By 1982, in contrast, MWD was leading the charge for expansion of the state system; it needed agriculture’s support, and didn’t get it. In the future, MWD will be calling the tune even more.

As a result, the arguments for the Peripheral Canal may also be due for some changes. Development of the project should become less of a water-supply question and more of a management issue. Any discussion of a facility bypassing the delta, for example, can make sense in terms of our current water situation only if it is presented as part of an overall management program.

The lesson of 1982 is still just as valid: Agribusiness and the Southern California metropolis can’t put this kind of project over by and for themselves. There has to be something in it that makes sense for the preservation of the delta and for the interests that all Californians, north and south, share in developing a more rational overall state water policy.

That could mean a program in which ground-water regulation and increased agricultural water conservation figure just as importantly as pouring new concrete around the delta. It might even mean that in order to secure the higher-quality water that a Peripheral Canal could provide, the areas south of the delta might wind up having to accept less water overall. Given the enormous costs that many Southern California communities might otherwise be facing in order to comply with new federal drinking-water standards, such an arrangement might actually turn out to be a bargain.

But if that’s the price for a Peripheral Canal, would Ayala and the rest of the project’s proponents be willing to pay it? The answer will tell whether all this renewed talk about building a Peripheral Canal has anything seriously to do with the state’s real water needs for the future, or whether it’s just another gesture toward a contentious and unproductive past.