So Close Now to Water Reform

Thursday's big U.S. Senate vote in favor of the Western Water Package, H.R. 429, should send a clear message to the White House. Although President Bush will be asked by California Gov. Pete Wilson and others to veto the measure because it would alter how the federal Central Valley Project operates, there is now wide agreement in this state that the time for water reform has come. Bush must sign this fundamentally important bill.

The CVP controls about 20% of the state's water. But due to outmoded rules, CVP water has been available only to buyers in the Central Valley, despite rising demand in fast-growing urban areas from the San Francisco Bay to the Mexican border. Under H.R. 429, CVP water would still go to farmers, but surplus water could be sold to cities like Los Angeles and San Diego, which have been suffering water shortages in a six-year drought.

The water reform act, drafted in the House by Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez), was ushered through the Senate by Bill Bradley (D-N.J.); it was approved there 83 to 8 despite threats of a filibuster by California's Republican Sen. John Seymour. Like Wilson, Seymour has repeatedly tried to obstruct, or at least amend, the water reform bill at the behest of politically powerful agricultural interests in the Central Valley. To placate Seymour, the Senate even passed a weaker reform act that he wrote. But, in a parliamentary sleight of hand, Seymour's bill was sent back to the House, which has already adjourned.

CVP reform became a big political issue because some landowners in the Central Valley are loath to see change in a system that gives them cheap federal water, even though the reforms are relatively modest and vitally important to the vast majority of Californians--those who live in cities.

For example, water contracts have been shortened from 40 years but are still good for 25 years. In a sad illustration of how resistant some farmers are to change, a few demanded 50-year guarantees. That kind of thinking is, of course, increasingly out of date. Most modern farmers know they can now do their important work more efficiently and with less water. And once cities are assured of a reliable supply of CVP water, they will be in a better position to help get our economy moving again. H.R. 429 is good for California.

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