New Bill May Not Ease California Water Shortage

Pro-cities, pro-wildlife legislation that loosens farming's hold on valley project is called `too little, too late' by critics

A MAJOR chapter in California's decades-long water war is opening with a big test for a new truce.

Federal legislation that loosens agriculture's hold on the state's enormous Central Valley Project (CVP) in favor of cities and wildlife was signed Oct. 30 by President Bush. But the measure, which ended years of highly contested reform efforts, comes amid predictions of an unprecedented seventh year of drought, now the state's worst in more than 400 years.

"Agriculture is going to have a harder time than ever," says Mary Ann Warmerdam, director of natural resources for the California Farm Bureau Federation. Noting that the new bill gives priority allotments to fish and wildlife and allows farmers to sell unused allotments, she says current conditions may raise unfair expectations that there will be anything left to sell.

"Water storage is down, new predictions are down," she says, "so the gains envisioned [by the bill may be on hold for a while."

The new concerns about devastating effects from the drought are discussed in last week's report by the state Department of Water Resources (DWR). Using tree-ring records and written data nearly a century old, state hydrologists predict that the dry season will extend well into its seventh year - the worst drought since 1560.

"The report is saying that we're headed for a situation the state has never been in before," DWR spokesman Allen Jones says. Noting that storage levels in the 155 major reservoirs are at 56 percent of average, and down 5 percent from last season's six-year low, he says the state's 30 million people will have to rely almost solely on rainfall for the coming year.

"Considering recent precipitation levels, that is not a good situation to be in," he adds.

Cumulative effects of the past six years have left many areas so dry that 10 percent of any precipitation will be soaked up before reaching rivers and streams, officials say. New restrictions on taking water from the Sacramento River Delta, intended to protect endangered species of winter-run salmon and delta smelt, will make matters worse. And there have been new restrictions on diverting water from the Owens Valley to Los Angeles, the state's largest water user.

Beginning two years ago, emergency rationing and mandatory conservation programs were begun in many cities. Though some restrictions have been relaxed in communities such as Santa Barbara and areas of San Diego, officials see resumption of such programs or severe cutbacks in deliveries to agriculture and urban users.

Such predictions are also dampening enthusiasm for the sweeping reforms envisioned by proponents of by the federal water bill. The bill was written to give urban water agencies additional resources by allowing them to purchase CVP water from willing farmers. The project extends nearly 500 miles from the Shasta Dam in the north to Bakersfield in the south. Rivers, dams, reservoirs, and power plants feed water runoff from the Sierra Nevada mountains to some 3 million farmers.

But despite California's output as the nation's largest farm state, urban, environmental, fishing, and business interests had long deplored the farmer's usage levels of 80 percent of the state's water. The new bill sets aside 800,000 acres of water for the environment - before agricultural and urban allotments - and establishes an annual $50 million restoration fund.

Under the bill, farmers should no longer get automatic renewal of 40-year contracts they enjoy with heavily subsidized prices. A nonfixed-rate pricing system that encourages conservation takes their place.

Though one San Francisco Bay conservation leader called the new water policy, "the falling of the Berlin Wall," others feel it is too little, too late. There are also concerns about interpretations of the new bill by the Clinton administration.

"The success of this bill depends on whether the new administration implements it in good faith," says Sam Yassa, research associate at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "A lot of the provisions for transfer and restoration are left up to the discretion of the [US] bureau [of Reclamation] or secretary of interior."

California Sen. John Seymour (R) opposed the bill, along with Gov. Pete Wilson (R), who is currently trying to get state control of the federally run project. Both feel the provisions could ignite scores of lawsuits that could ensnare the state for years. Besides agricultural and urban groups who are huddling to make sense of all the fine print, environmental groups here are speculating who the next interior secretary will be.

"You talk to attorneys on both sides and get totally different readings," Warmerdam adds.

But as farmers try to hold onto their dwindling prospects, and environmentalists wonder if officials will safeguard their new allotments, at least some officials see a silver lining.

"This is a new era of water use in California," says Allen Garcia, director of the Northern California Water Association, and a 20-year farmer.

"The new bill along with the drought are forcing all sides together in need. New ideas are coming out of the woodwork. It's a very exciting time."

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