In an historic accord that marks at least a temporary end to the bitter struggle over California’s most precious water resource, Gov. Pete Wilson and senior members of the Clinton Administration signed an agreement Thursday to protect the Sacramento Delta estuary and provide reliable water supplies to farms and cities across the state.
Flanked by Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator Carol Browner, Wilson declared that the three-year accord “signals a cease-fire in the water wars that have too long plagued California.”
“It puts an end to a bitter conflict that has persisted for decades,” President Clinton said in a statement released by the White House. “This is a solution that serves all the people of California.”
The agreement covering the delta inland from San Francisco Bay at the confluence of the Sacramento, San Joaquin and a host of lesser Northern California rivers calls for:
* New rules on how much fresh river water must be left in the delta for environmental needs, including the habitat of the endangered chinook salmon and delta smelt. In a normal year the amount will be 400,000 acre-feet. In severe drought years the total will be 1.1 million acre-feet.
* Three years of certainty about water supplies from the delta for farms and urban customers.
* Lesser curbs on water for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California during drought years. Under the accord, the MWD will lose no more than 5% of its total water supply in severely dry years.
* New salinity standards for the delta and Suisun Bay, the nation’s largest brackish marsh and a nursery for many of the estuary’s 120 species of fish.
* Payment by the federal government if any more water is needed to help any species that become newly endangered.
Many environmental groups endorsed the final accord, although it closely parallels proposals by a coalition of urban and agricultural interests.
It will provide “an affordable and reliable future water supply,” said John R. Wodraska, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District, which delivers water to 16 million Southern California customers.
“This is really a big deal for California agriculture,” said Dan Nelson of the San Luis and Delta-Mendota Water Authority, one of the largest water users in the Central Valley. The agreement has been coming together for several months, but pulling it off required a final week of marathon negotiations and significant federal concessions over how much water is required to support the delta’s ailing aquatic life.
Often described as a crossroads of environmental and economic interests, the delta is the largest wetland habitat in the western United States. It also collects half of the state’s annual runoff, provides 60% of the fresh water used in California and is the source of irrigation water for 45% of the nation’s fruits and vegetables.
The accord “finally secures significant environmental improvements for the bay-delta estuary,” said John Krautkraemer of the Environmental Defense Fund.
However, the enthusiasm was not universally shared among environmental activists.
“On the basis of respected independent scientists, there is no assurance that California salmon will survive this political compromise,” said state Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica).
For the Clinton Administration, which is girding for a Republican assault on a variety of environmental regulations, the pact offers an opportunity to argue that it can be flexible on crucial issues. That is particularly so in regard to one of the most embattled conservation laws, the Endangered Species Act.
“It (the agreement) allows us a very powerful case study that the Endangered Species Act is workable and can play an important role in finding the balance between the economy and the environment,” Babbitt said.
For Wilson, who has been accused in the past of walking away from potential solutions to the delta impasse, the signing ceremony at the state Capitol was a moment to savor.
He had insisted that he would not go along with any plan that did not change the way that federal agencies, in charge of administering the Endangered Species Act, dictated the flow of water available to consumers.
Wilson has contended that implementation of the act led to arbitrary interruptions of water supplies that made it impossible for water agencies to calculate future supplies or costs.
Yet it was a series of events independent of the governor that created much of the impetus for the accord.
Momentum for an agreement began after the EPA, reacting to a refusal by Wilson to set delta protection standards, announced that it would step in to impose federal rules. Then last March, Standard & Poor’s warned that if something wasn’t done to end the delta water dispute, the state’s credit rating, already hurt by the recession, could be further weakened.
The warning prompted a dozen top executives of leading California businesses to write to Wilson and Clinton that if state and federal officials did not come up with an acceptable delta policy, the economic recovery in California could be jeopardized.
By midsummer, negotiations between state and federal officials began to show progress on one of the most important elements in the accord--a standard to govern how much water must be allowed to flow past diversion pumps in order to establish a healthy balance between fresh and salt water in the estuary.
Meanwhile, progress on another front was being made by a coalition of urban and agricultural water users under the leadership of Wodraska and Nelson.
They began lobbying in Washington and Sacramento for a plan that became the basis for the accord. The Wilson Administration endorsed the plan, which called for reserving several hundred thousand acre-feet less water for environmental needs in critically dry years than was being recommended by federal officials.
Some of the same environmentalists who ultimately signed the accord argued that the coalition’s plan would lead to the extinction of endangered fish.
But the Republican Party’s triumph in the November election changed the political environment in such a dramatic way that the coalition’s proposal, with some modification, began to look like the best deal that might be struck on the delta.
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State and federal officials announced a plan to restore the environmental health of the estuary that stretches from San Francisco Bay to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
Here are the key points of the agreement:
* New standards for salinity of delta water and Suisun Bay, the nation’s largest brackish marsh.
* Water guaranteed for environmental needs in the delta: 400,000 acre-feet in normal years, 1.1 million acre-feet in extreme drought years.
* No new species to be listed as threatened for at least three years.
* Increased role of the state in delta water policy.
* Water users will bankroll fund to reduce fish loss by installing screens and other steps.