California Launches Water Plan

Governor Wilson lauded for move to balance needs of farmers, city dwellers, conservation

AS details of California's most comprehensive water plan in 30 years trickle down to urban, farm, and environmental users here, reviews are mixed over how the state will accomplish a multiplicity of goals.

These include continued conservation, a permanent water-marketing system, and new storage and distribution facilities.

Outlined by Gov. Pete Wilson in an April 6 speech in San Diego, the ideas are meant to head off an annual 4.4 million acre-foot shortage of water statewide by 2010. Even without the drought conditions in California over the last six years, that short-fall would deprive about 4.4 million families each year of their needs. With a 30 million population growing by about 800,000 annually, the state's semi-arid climate has pushed water issues to the top of local, state, and federal agendas.

"Good, bad, or indifferent, this agenda represents a public commitment to water issues not seen since [Gov.] Pat Brown [1958-66]," says Mary Ann Warmerdam, director of natural resources for the California Farm Bureau Federation.

Lauded from all corners as a genuine attempt to achieve fairness among long-contentious factions, the new outline has been criticized for lack of specificity and detail about timing, funding, legal and political hurdles.

"Wilson is the first governor to make a realistic attempt to reconcile seemingly irreconcilable demands of farmers, urban dwellers and a badly [impoverished] environment," says Marc Reisner, author of "Cadillac Desert" which has chronicled water issues in the American West. "But he stopped short of coming out with immediate proposals to rectify the [water] crisis." The outcome of a four-month-long task force investigation, the recommendations, many of which will require legislation before they can be imp lemented, had been eagerly awaited in several quarters. Among the key proposals:

* Establishment of an environmental review process through the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Key representatives of urban, environmental and agricultural sectors will develop specific solutions to guarantee protection for the San Francisco Bay-Sacramento River delta. The delta, a kind of Grand Central Station for state water flows north to south, the area has long been plagued by saltwater intrusion and drainage problems resulting in degraded wa ter and endangered fish and wildlife in streams and marshes.

* A negotiating team sent to Washington, D.C., April 17 will work out details for the transfer of the Central Valley Project (CVP) to state control. The largest single block of water in the state - about 7-8 million acre-feet per year - is now operated by the United States Bureau of Reclamation. "Getting the CVP into state hands is a very significant step in allowing us to coordinate our own resources," says Dave Kennedy, director of the State Department of Water Resources.

* Increased support of pending state and federal legislative initiatives regarding water transfers. In its first year (1991), a state water bank transferred 800,000 acre-feet from farms to cities. Wilson would like to examine ways to apply the concept across state lines. Flow control barriers

To help improve the water supply and and restore the damaged delta area, Wilson also called for the construction of flow-control barriers, enlargement of some channels, and shifting of pumping to winter months. He reaffirmed support for three off-stream reservoirs - Los Banos Grandes, Los Vaqueros, and Domenigoni. And he directed the California Environmental Protection Agency to develop water quality standards by year's end.

Besides the vagueness of some proposals, several environmentalists have taken the new recommendations to task for inappropriate assumptions.

"For the government to assume that there is a level playing field to begin with [between agricultural, urban, and environmental users] fails to recognize that significant environmental mitigation is needed before we can address all three on equal footing," said Sam Yassa, research associate at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Urban users question funding capabilities for some ideas during recessionary, budget-cutting years.

"Money is definitely the big hurdle in all this," says Jim Wickser, assistant general manager for water at the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Several observers have noted that transferring the aging CVP to state control will require both huge up-front expenditures and high maintenance costs.

"Big expenditure items like these tend to get stalled in the works for years," says Mr. Wickser.

Farm interests - which already use about 80 percent of the state's water - seem to have the most praise for Wilson's plan. "By getting all three interests to the table, we can do more than just visit on the issues," says CFBF's Warmerdam. "This will help push us all to agreement."

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