LOS ANGELES — THE state that bloomed from desert to produce half the United States's fruits and vegetables and the world's seventh-largest economy is now in the fight of its life over the primary commodity that got it there: water.
The struggle over water is traditionally an urban-versus-rural one: Cities grumble that 80 percent of water goes to farmers. Now environmentalist voices have entered the fray in stronger-than-ever numbers, heightening political tensions among local, state, and federal authorities.
"We've got historic scarcity added to the most convoluted and complex legal structures ever devised for the movement of water," says Mary Ann Warmerdam, director of natural resources for the California Farm Bureau. "The situation is quite heated."
Six years of drought have left the state's two largest reservoirs at historically low levels. Several aquifers are reaching the point of collapse, after which some experts say they can never be replenished. Depleted wetlands and riparian habitats are compounding efforts to protect such key wildlife as the chinook salmon, delta smelt, and striped bass.
"California's early mistake of building a few big projects rather than hosts of smaller ones is catching up with us," says Marc Reisner, author of "Cadillac Desert," a noted work on the American West and its disappearing water.
The state is taking advantage of the crisis to garner support for new programs that will carry into the 21st century: water-trading markets that can disperse surpluses and deficits; federal legislation that could redistribute the 80-percent-to-20-percent advantage long enjoyed by agriculture over cities; new storage banks, reclamation, and conservation procedures; and moves away from flood irrigation to drip irrigation.
Officials are looking to desalination as well as to new ways of transferring water and of combining the use of both surface and ground water for supplemental supplies. "California invented itself through water," says historian Kevin Starr, who has chronicled the century-long building of dams, reservoirs, and aqueducts that turned arid valleys into oases. "Now the reinvention of the new, limited California is coming through water."
According to Ms. Warmerdam, the state's gigantic construction program of dams, levees, and aqueducts ended in the early 1960s, when the state's population was roughly half its current 30 million. But with minor exceptions, no additional carrying and pumping capacity has been added since the late 1960s. With an influx of population continuing at about 600,000 a year, with high concentrations in the more-arid interior, new constituencies are demanding that different water balances be struck.
As they do, heightened calls for enforcement of environmental laws - exacerbated by high-profile fights over saving specific wildlife species - have made building new infrastructure more contentious. The costs and disputed locations of such dams as the Auburn Dam north of Sacramento, one on the Santa Margarita River near San Diego, and one on Sespe Creek in Ventura County have extended disputes over construction into decades-long battles.
Meanwhile, February flooding in southern California made headlines: Three days of street runoff sent enough water into the ocean to satisfy Los Angeles's demand for a year.
In the same week as the flooding, farmers from across the state converged on the lawn of the state capitol to protest a major cutback, by the US Bureau of Reclamation, of water to the Central Valley. Some 7,000 farmers will receive only 15 percent of their yearly allotments and 18,000 more will lose 50 percent to 80 percent of theirs. Farmers blamed environmental laws that require minimum water depths behind the project's main dam to ensure that salmon can spawn. But Reclamation Bureau chief Don Paff sai d the cause was lack of water reserves. "We can't give them what we don't have," Mr. Paff said, noting that the state's rainfall is well below average for the year.
Among the successful ideas experts say are helping state authorities stumble through the current crisis and that promise long-term help are:
* The California Department of Water Resources drought water bank. Instituted for the first time in 1991 by new "drought czar" David Kennedy, the water bank is a way to pay willing farmers and municipal agencies for water subsequently offered to those in need elsewhere. The 1992 version, announced March 11, will require money up front from those requesting water, to eliminate concern that users will inflate needs.
* A historic agreement between the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and the Inyo County Water Department (ICWD). After 20 years of bitter litigation between the two water departments, both have agreed to a model water-management agreement based on closely-monitored environmental quotas.
"For the first time," says Greg James, ICWD director, "a major urban area which has gone out and taken a resource from a much poorer, less politically potent area ... has finally decided to manage the way they take that water [other than] solely on the needs of the city alone." Several observers note that the arrangement is a turning point in the water wars of the American West.
* Desalination. On Oct. 11, 1991, San Nicolas Island (off the coast between Los Angeles and San Diego) opened the state's first significant desalination plant, generating 12,000 gallons of drinking water a day from the ocean. Marin County is operating a pilot plant, and Santa Barbara has opened a $25 million plant to supply one-third of that city's needs. Several other communities are considering plants.
The cost of desalinated water varies from project to project, but averages about $2,000 per acre-foot. (An acre-foot equals 326,000 gallons or 1.2 million liters, approximately what it takes to supply two families of four for one year.) As such, its uses are best supplementary at this point, experts say.
"California is learning that we can no longer view the state water structure as a static thing that relied on the visions of our predecessors," Warmerdam says.