New options may help cool water feud in California

''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.''

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?

There are some ''givens.'' People throughout the state strongly support water conservation, and it has to be part of any kind of program. But I think most people also feel conservation in itself will not meet all of our needs. As long as we continue to grow, we're going to need water development.

We start out also with the knowledge, based on many years of planning, that there is enough water to meet everybody's needs. There's no inherent reason we have to be scrapping among ourselves about water.

Another basic premise is that only water surplus to northern California needs would be exported to the (San Joaquin) valley and southern California. Defining what is surplus is part of the challenge. But the concept that only surplus water would be exported has been basic to the state water project since the very beginning.

What is your position on preservation of the five scenic or ''wild'' rivers in northern and central California (The lower American, Eel, Klamath, Smith, and Trinity)?

They're a potential supply, but I don't think they're going to be an issue in this generation. That's something the generations after the turn of the century can deal with.

Would you explain the impact on southern California of the pending diversion of Colorado River water into the Central Arizona Project?

San Diego is more dependent on . . . imported water than any other portion of urban southern California - with 90 to 95 percent of San Diego County's water being purchased from the Metropolitan Water District. They are the ones that have the greatest stake in something being done (to replace water soon to be taken by Arizona). The Arizona project . . . will not be using all the water available to it, but legally that doesn't make much difference, because the legal trigger for the cutback in California is the initial operation of the Central Arizona Project. From that point on, California will get what it's been getting only if there is surplus water. In a year like this, with flooding, California would get all it needed. But these floods are very rare.

The minimum allocation of Colorado River water for California is 4.4 million acre-feet a year. Agriculture gets most of that; the MWD gets the basic right to 550,000 acre-feet, which with natural loss comes down to 400,000 to 450,000 acre-feet. The district has been using about 750,000 annually in recent years and has used as much as 1.5 million.

The impact of the Central Arizona Project depends to some extent on the weather. During the last drought California used 1.3 million acre-feet of Colorado River water. So it could be very significant - or not all that significant.

Does the 30-year-old state water plan need a complete overhaul?

It's really a plan that evolves over time, with continual changes in planning for development. For instance, farm economics have changed over the years to where any new surface water developments, involving big reservoirs, are very expensive to farmers. . . . In the basic water plan put together 30 years ago, there were dams on almost every stream in California. I think that's very unlikely to happen.

Do you foresee changes in the types of crops grown in the Central Valley as water becomes more scarce and more expensive?

I think change already is taking place, not through regulation, but because of economics. In the valley, you see less alfalfa and more higher-value crops like cotton. . . . I think most farmers prefer to let economics run the system and not have state regulators telling them what to do. I don't see us getting involved with regulation. I do see changes taking place as water gets more expensive.

Although there's enough water to go around now, do you foresee the water supply eventually limiting urban growth in California?

There's plenty of water, though the supply of course is finite. Roughly, there is an average annual runoff of 75 million acre-feet a year. About half that is presently utilized.

My conclusion is that there's not going to be much more growth of irrigated agriculture in California. Roughly 90 percent of the land over the groundwater basin in the San Joaquin Valley already is being irrigated.

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