TWO Western governors are confronting a proposal to transfer water from the rivers of the Northwest to the kitchen sinks of southern California. This spring, Los Angeles County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn won the unanimous vote of his colleagues on the Board of Supervisors to study the idea.
Officials here are paying attention. Water rates in Los Angeles have risen to the point where developers could make money on such a project, say Idaho water-policy specialists.
``You're talking big bucks,'' says Scott Reed, a Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, lawyer who specializes in water and environmental issues. ``Any time a developer can end up with a very large bankroll, I think you have to regard that as a very large threat.''
Hahn's effort marks the third time since the mid-1970s that he has proposed taking unallocated water from the Snake or Columbia Rivers to serve Los Angeles County. Hahn has written letters to Govs. Booth Gardner (D) of Washington and Cecil Andrus of (D) Idaho seeking their blessing; both have refused to give it.
Hahn and his colleagues are pressed to find new sources of water. The metropolitan area around them is growing by 300,000 people a year. He says the 90 billion gallons of water a day running into the Pacific Ocean from the Snake and Columbia basin are ``sinful and wasteful.''
Of the two states whose rivers would be tapped, Idaho appears to be taking the proposal more seriously. Andrus has appointed a team of lawyers, including Reed, to analyze Hahn's proposal and formulate a defensive strategy.
Reed and other lawyers from the team say that Californians are now paying so much for water that an aqueduct hundreds of miles and dozens of lawsuits long is beginning to make sense.
``You can sit down and on paper justify this thing financially based on equivalent water charges to what they're charging now,'' says Twin Falls attorney John Rosholt, one of the region's pre-eminent water-use attorneys.
Such a project is possible from an engineering standpoint, Rosholt adds.
An aqueduct system would start near Hagerman, Idaho, where the Snake River lies at about 3,000 feet above sea level and at which point there is about 6,000 acre-feet of unappropriated water. Pumping it up to about 6,500 feet above sea level near Jackpot, Nevada, would be expensive, but the flow downhill from there to Lake Mead could turn turbines to generate much of the electricity needed to run the pumps.
Rosholt also notes that under the interstate commerce clauses of the US Constitution, a Californian has as much right to the extra water in Idaho as does an Idahoan.
``The whole effort of the defense team is to demonstrate that the water in Idaho is being fully used,'' Reed says. ``At the present time it wouldn't be hard to create a paper permit on everything out of the Snake River, but in north Idaho, we have not had the consumptive use of water.''
At the Idaho water team's first session, lawyers began discussing a strategy that environmentalists should love: lock up Idaho's unappropriated waters by protecting them for wildlife.
``If you had it in the name of the public, it would be a tough nut to crack,'' Rosholt says.