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New options may help cool water feud in California

By Leon LindsayStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / July 20, 1983



San Francisco

''No political figure has said to me, 'We don't want to send water to southern California,' '' says California's new director of the Department of Water Resources, David N. Kennedy. ''Most say they appreciate that water is going to have to be exported, but they simply want to see that it's done in a logical, economical way that protects northern California.''

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Mr. Kennedy's remarks run contrary to those of most Californians, who expect controversy over water to again split the state, north vs. south, as it did in the spring of 1982. That was when a referundum on building a ''peripheral canal'' to transport water from the Sacramento Delta to the San Joaquin Valley and southern California was being emotionally debated. With northern California voting almost 9 to 1 against the canal in June 1982, it went down to defeat.

Kennedy, then assistant general manager of the Metropolitan Water District (MWD) of southern California, at the time was a chief advocate of the canal.

In the water controversy, the MWD is none too popular with northerners jealous of water rights. On its face, Gov. George Deukmejian's appointment of Kennedy little over a month ago hardly seemed a conciliatory move.

But although he has been with the MWD since 1968, Kennedy often points out that he grew up in northern California and graduated from the University of California at Berkeley. Even those who were his opponents in last year's canal debate concede that he is a reasonable man.

He has been graceful in defeat. Asked if he would try to revive the peripheral canal, Kennedy said, ''I personally feel - and the (Deukmejian) administration felt before I got there - that the vote against the canal was so overwhelming that it would not be realistic to come back with that.''

In an interview, Kennedy outlined his views on California's water needs, both short-term and long-run.

Is your first priority to come up with some alternative to the peripheral canal?

Basically, we're going to regroup and have a fresh look at what the needs are and what the alternatives are to meet those needs. . . . We'll be proposing some specific projects, I'm sure, within the next six months to a year, as to how we can go forward. We're working on a report now that will review five or six alternatives to the canal.

In terms of an orderly schedule for meeting water needs, we're way behind. I think that at this point it's just a case of trying to put something together as quickly as we can but still make sure it's a logical thing to do. We don't want a 'quick fix'; we want whatever we do to make sense in terms of what ultimately (in the next century) may be done.

I think it's a case of not overextending ourselves by developing such a grandiose program that it overwhelms people (a hint that he feels that is what happened with the peripheral canal plan). If we take it a step at a time so that people can see that each step makes sense and that the north is protected, then I think we can get something done.

Some sort of Sacramento River Delta project will be proposed, will it not?

There are several through-delta projects where you improve existing channels. And there are ways in which you could build new channnels that would not be nearly as extensive as the peripheral canal. . . . But we're not talking just water transfer. We have to deal with the levy problem (dikes that keep rich farmlands from flooding are dangerously weak), the fisheries problem, and the water quality problem.

Do you think any new plan will have to face voter ratification?

Not necessarily. If the legislators of northern California can feel satisfied that whatever arrangement is worked out is fair and equitable, then I think that can be conveyed to the people they represent.

I think to some extent it's a case of staying away from 'blank checks' and open-ended deals. People need to see what it is that's being done.

Do you have any specific priorities in terms of water availability and use?