California's water 'war': new wave of controversy

California's north-south "civil war" -- the battle that has raged for decades over water resources -- has reached a crucial juncture. At stake are billions of dollars in development costs and agricultural production, scores of political reputations, and complex environmental and resource considerations that stretch into the next century.

The key issue is whether a 43-mile-long, 400-foot-wide canal should be built around the periphery of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River delta, east of San Francisco. The 10-year project would transport vast quantities of fresh water from northern streams and rivers to thirsty southern California.

This "peripheral canal," as it is known, would be the final link in what may be the most ambitious (not to mention controversial) state water project in the country. It is favored by Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. and, after years of legislative wrangling, seems sure of passage by state lawmakers.

But as is typically the case with volatile political issues in California, the matter may ultimately be decided by individual voters. An initiative concerning the canal recently was placed on the November ballot.

California's water problem is simply put: Three-quarters of the fresh water supply comes from the north, three-quarters of the need is in the south. Over the past 20 years, mammoth canals, pumping stations, and other facilities have been built by state and federal authorities.

The massive Metropolitan Water District (MWD), which serves six counties and 11 million people (half the state's population) around Los Angeles, now gets much of its water from the Colorado River. Under a federal court order, southern California will lose most of this water to Arizona over the next 10 years. Thus, say southern Californians, they need to begin importing more water from the north.

Much of the water also has been used to turn the arid San Joaquin Valley into one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world. Farmers and politically powerful agribusiness interests (including railroads, oil companies, and other corporations) also have a keen interest in developing new sources of water.

On the other side are those who fear for the future of the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta, the largest inland estuary in the continental United States. The confluence of the rivers, with its thousands of miles of channels and hundreds of small islands, is home for many species of freshwater fish and waterfowl.

Left in its natural state, the freshwater flow helps hold back the salt water that enters through San Francisco Bay. It also irrigates many farms in the delta area and provides water supplies for surrounding urban areas. Critics of the peripheral canal say the "vampire ditch," as some call it, would lead to saline pollution of the delta, particularly in years of drought.

As environmental and energy awareness has heightened in recent years, there are other broader questions as well.

The cost of pumping millions of acre-feet of water (each acre-foot is 326,000 gallons) across great distances has grown considerably since the days of cheap energy, when the project was first conceived. It would make more sense, say some, to begin using water more wisely through drip irrigation and other conservation measures.This could also help the growing problem of groundwater overdrafts and salinity in the San Joaquin Valley.

Just beneath the surface of public debate is enough intrigue to keep a squad of Hollywood screenwriters busy. Several members of the Metropolitan Water District board of directors have large real estate and agribusiness holdings, or are also board members or employees of oil companies with large farming operations.

The family that controls the Los Angeles Times (a newspaper that consistently has supported the peripheral canal) has large land holdings that benefit from state irrigation facilities. In pushing for the canal, Governor Brown is carrying on the tradition of his father, former Gov. Edmund G. (Pat) Brown, who fought for the massive state water project at its inception.

Still, the current California governor (long known as a strong environmentalist) continues to insist on protection for the delta and rivers in northern California. As a compromise, a state constitutional amendment that would guarantee such protection now will face a voter test this fall.

Heavy political maneuvering and high-stakes lobbying will ensue until then. But it may be that at long last a resolution to what one lawmakers hyperbolically calls "the most divisive issue since slavery" is at hand.

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