Pulling the Plug on a Good Deal : Pass the federal water reform first, please

There may be some merit in the reported dramatic agreement between the Bush Administration and the State of California to transfer title to the Central Valley Project from the U.S. government to Sacramento. However, with state revenues pulled down by the recession and Congress on the verge of reaching a historic water reform, the timing couldn't be worse.

The federal system consists of dams, canals and reservoirs that provide 20% of the state's water. To obtain title, California would have to assume massive debt payments on a project that would cost taxpayers billions. Even more important, the state's buy offer comes at a time when Congress is finally moving to shake up the way the Central Valley Project operates. Those important reforms would make it easier for the state to scrape through droughts like the current one.

The reforms, in a series of congressional bills authored by U.S. Reps. George Miller (D-Martinez) and Vic Fazio (D-West Sacramento) and Sens. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) and John Seymour (R-California), are now before a House-Senate conference committee. The rules regulating the CVP would be reformed so that urban water users--the overwhelming majority of Californians--could draw water from the federal project. Currently, most of that water goes to farmers. The hitch is that, because of outdated federal laws, even farmers who don't need all their water are barred from selling it to cities.

That is the barren legacy California must escape. Fifty years ago, when construction began on the CVP, the cities had far fewer people and agriculture was a far bigger part of the economy. So farmers were given first call on CVP water, and incentives to use it were locked into contracts guaranteeing them water for 40 years.

Nowadays most farmers need less water, thanks to modern techniques. The cities need more water than ever, especially during the droughts that are inevitable in the arid West. So it's time to change the water rules.

Probably California's gigantic, man-made water system might operate more efficiently if the CVP were run by Sacramento rather than Washington, as Gov. Pete Wilson has proposed. That's worth discussing at some future date. But let's not put the proverbial cart in front of the horse.

Before anything in the water system can improve, the outdated laws that limit use of CVP water must change. It's unclear why Wilson and state water officials don't, or won't, see that. But that must not intimidate Congress--including Seymour, whom Wilson appointed to succeed him in the Senate--from doing the right thing and pushing CVP reform through.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World