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State Water Bank Fills Up Enough to Ride Out Year : Conservation: Northern California farmers who had been hesitant to sell to the government now are willing to make a deal. Officials say the supply can meet health and safety needs.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The state’s emergency water bank, initially hampered by Northern California farmers’ reluctance to sell their water, now has secured enough water to meet the health and safety needs of drought-ravaged regions this year, officials said Wednesday.

As storms continued to pelt much of California, state officials said they had bought 380,630 acre-feet of water from farmers in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. Contracts for another 287,000 acre-feet of water in Yuba County, they added, should soon be signed. Together the purchases meet the goals of some state officials to buy at least a half-million acre-feet.

“We’re buying water like there’s no tomorrow,” said Steve Macaulay, coordinator of the water bank for the state Department of Water Resources. “Farmers are coming in daily, saying, ‘Count me in.’ ”

Despite such progress--and the likelihood that the March storms will reduce demand for emergency supplies in many communities--state officials said they will continue pressing farmers to fallow their land and sell their water to the drought bank.

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“I think we feel we’ve (bought enough water) to satisfy the real serious public health and safety needs,” said Bob Potter, deputy director of the state Department of Water Resources. “But there are still lots of remaining adverse impacts from the drought . . . so we don’t yet see any reason to close the bank.”

Also Wednesday, Sen. John Seymour (R-Calif.) introduced legislation that would allow the federal government to act as a water broker during droughts, buying water at unrestricted market-set prices and reselling it to willing buyers.

Seymour said his “market-oriented” approach to water shortages would work better than that advocated by other members of Congress, who have favored taking water from agriculture and reallocating it to urban areas during dry periods.

He said such interference with historic water rights would lead to a “decade of litigation” lasting long after the current drought is over.

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While parts of Seymour’s 12-point bill have wide support in Congress, his proposal to authorize Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan Jr. to buy and sell water may run into strong opposition. Under his proposal, anyone who sold water to the federal government would have to reduce water consumption by the same amount.

Another provision sure to stir controversy would suspend for one year the 960-acre limit on farms that may apply for new or additional federal water benefits. The limit is intended to direct more subsidized water to family farmers, and restrict the flow to huge corporate farms.

Seymour said he had not discussed his proposed legislation with California’s senior senator, Democrat Alan Cranston. But he expressed hope that he could work with Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.), author of competing drought legislation and chairman of a key subcommittee on water issues, to get a satisfactory compromise bill.

In Sacramento, officials repeated Wednesday that the March storms, while encouraging, amount to a proverbial drop in the bucket compared to California’s dire water needs in this fifth year of drought. Although 1991 no longer is competing for designation as the state’s driest year in history, the storms have not markedly boosted long-term supplies.

“The fact is, you get out of a drought when most of your major reservoirs have recovered normal storage,” said Alan Jones, a spokesman for the Department of Water Resources. “Obviously, we’re not anywhere near that point.”

Indeed, while the continuing cloudbursts have sent figures creeping upward, Jones said storage in reservoirs statewide remains at about 50% of average and the snowpack in the critical western Sierra Nevada is just 57% of average.

“If you look at all the guideposts, it’s clear we’re still in bad shape,” said Sandra Salazar, spokeswoman for the state Drought Information Center.

The storms are, however, helping those running the landmark emergency water bank, established by Gov. Pete Wilson as a way to aid regions hit hardest by the drought. Acting in essence as a water broker, the state bank buys water from Northern California farmers with an ample supply this year and then will resell it to cities and agricultural areas in need.

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Wilson has said the bank would require 500,000 acre-feet of water to cover the state’s health and safety needs this year, but Potter said he hoped to purchase twice that amount based on requests filed with the state by prospective buyers. The recent storms, however, are increasing local water supplies in some areas, and thereby reducing those areas’ need to purchase water from the state.

The Kern County Water Agency, for example, asked the state for 165,000 acre-feet of bank water to cover its critical needs--keeping 100,000 acres of trees and grapevines alive--for the year. But rains have caused the Kern River, an important local source for the county, to rise, and the agency’s request could decline, said Gary Bucher, the agency’s resource director.

Also, the Metropolitan Water District--which had planned to buy 390,000 acre-feet from the bank--may need less. That’s because the storms will enable the State Water Project to deliver more water to the MWD and other urban customers, whose supply was earlier cut by 90%.

(An acre-foot--the water needed to fill an acre of land to a depth of one foot--is the amount of water a typical Los Angeles household of five would use in 18 months.)

In an ironic twist, while demand for water from the bank appears to be slumping, more and more farmers are willing to sell it. Many growers, particularly rice farmers, had been hesitant to sell, objecting primarily to the $125-per-acre-foot price offered by the state. Now, the state is receiving 10 to 20 new contract offers a day, officials said.

Potter said the increased interest may signal farmers’ realization that the storms have cut the demand for emergency supplies, and thereby the opportunity to make money from water sales this year. Farmers who had held out for a higher price suddenly realized they could miss the boat altogether if they don’t sell soon.

“There is certainly some of that,” Potter said.


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