California water battle comes back to a boil. Northerners threaten to take fight to voters if diversion bill passes

The war between the north and the south rages on - in California. The fight is over water, the ever-so-slippery substance that has been a major source of friction in the state for more than a decade. Now after a three-year reprieve, embattled Californians are preparing to draw swords again.

All sides agree that the Legislature is likely to craft a law this year that will allow more water from northern California to be sent to the arid southland. The Assembly approved such a bill last week, and the Senate passed a similar bill earlier in the month.

As the Assembly and Senate begin to hammer out their differences, northern lawmakers are threatening to harpoon any final legislation if their environmental-protection demands are not met. While northerners may not have enough votes to stop the bill in the Legislature, they have another not-so-secret weapon: the ballot referendum.

``The decision has already been made that unless more [conservation] amendments are added, there will be a referendum,'' says Corey Brown, general counsel for the Planning and Conservation League.

The state has gone this route once before, in the bitter 1982 battle over building the Peripheral Canal. The water project was soundly defeated, opposed by 95 percent of northern voters and a surprising 40 percent of southern voters, and it never has been built. Since then, Gov. George Deukmejian tried in 1984 to find an alternative water-delivery method, but his proposal (nicknamed Duke's Ditch) foundered under rumblings about another referendum.

California does not ordinarily have a water shortage, although two consecutive dry years can put the state in a bind. Rather, it has a water mismatch.

``Two-thirds of this state's water originates north of Sacramento, while 70 percent of its users live south of the capital city,'' states a report by the Water Education Foundation.

To transfer water to southern cities and farms, California has woven a giant web of canals, aqueducts, pumping stations, and reservoirs.

The largest of the water-delivery systems are the State Water Project, operated by a state agency, and the Central Valley Project, run by the federal government. At the heart of both systems is the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, 1,100 square miles of marshland and estuaries sometimes called ``the Everglades of the West.''

Both diversion projects are designed to capture fresh water that drains into the delta, before the water escapes to San Francisco Bay to be swallowed by the Pacific Ocean.

To environmentalists and area residents, protection of the delta is paramount. ``The bay-delta estuary is the single most critical ecological area in California,'' Mr. Brown says. The water projects have had a major impact on the delta, he says, contributing to a 70 percent loss in the delta fisheries and a 50 percent loss in the amount of fresh water reaching San Francisco Bay.

Since the water wars of 1982 and '84, state officials have kept a low profile on water policy. The strategy has been to proceed step by step, negotiating and compromising all the way.

It's a strategy the environmentalists favor. They say it has helped to build consensus on rancorous issues, such as adding more pumps at existing stations and increasing protection for an important delta marshland.

Now, ``the atmosphere [in Sacramento] has been poisoned by the water people's determination to write their own bills, and then try to jam them through with a few environmental concessions,'' says Thomas Graff of the Environmental Defense Fund.

But Assemblyman Jim Costa of Fresno defends his bill as solid policy that is environmentally sound.

``Environmentalists, using the go-slow approach, are leading the state down the same path that our legislation has outlined,'' says Bob Reeb, senior consultant for the Water, Parks, and Wildlife Committee, which Mr. Costa chairs. ``The State Water Project is unable to satisfy demand, and our bill meets the need to firm up existing yield within the project.''

The state Department of Water Resources (DWR) delivers about 5.5 million acre-feet of delta water a year to its customers, and it is under contract to deliver 7 million acre-feet after the turn of the century.

Even so, department director David Kennedy is adamant that delta protection will come first.

``The real question is how much water is needed for the delta,'' he says. ``That's what's being argued.'' Next month, the DWR will hold a hearing on environmental standards for the delta, the first leg of a process that is expected to take three years.

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