California Water War's Moment of Truce

Now all sides must hammer out details of historic accord

THE conference rooms aren't as posh as The Hague, and the negotiators may not be as colorful as the Arabs and Israelis.

But across California, in places like the Stockton Inn, the Costa Mesa Marriott, and the Redding Red Lion Inn, former enemies are making history here in the way they regulate the arid West's most sought-after natural resource.

Farmers and ranchers are sitting at linen-covered tables with city dwellers from Los Angeles and environmentalists from San Francisco. All sides are rolling up their sleeves to hammer out the details of what's been hailed as a landmark pact over water use.

Nailing down exactly how much goes to irrigation, how much flows to home faucets, and who must sacrifice so that salmon and smelt will have a healthy habitat are key questions. Whether workable answers can be reached will determine if this is a genuine truce or temporary cease-fire.

''For three decades there have been lawsuits, litigation, legislation, and it hasn't worked,'' says Richard Golb, executive director of the Northern California Water Association. ''Now the state's varied water users have a defined goal and a way to reach it without shooting at each other - this is a watershed event in the way this country deals with its natural resources.''

For the past 30 years, the country's largest resource project, the Sacramento River Delta, has been neglected, seriously threatening the water used in homes, industries, farms, cities and by wildlife.

The stakes are large: 75 percent of the state's water passes through the 1,600 square mile web of bogs, marshes, and islands. The region harbors 120 species of fish and drinking water for 20 million. Half of the nation's fruits and vegetables are grown in adjacent valleys.

Last spring, after such key fish as smelt, striped bass, and salmon were shown to have declined 90 percent since 1969, the state water board adopted an agreement to protect the vast delta region. At the same time, the board provided reliable water supplies to farms and cities, north and south.

Gov. Pete Wilson (R) said the accord ''signals a cease-fire in the water wars that have too long plagued California.'' President Clinton concurred: ''It puts an end to a bitter conflict that has persisted for decades.''

Last month, workshops and public gatherings began for all affected users to determine how to best meet the conditions of the new plan.

One key point is the adoption of new standards for salinity of delta water and the adjacent Suisun Bay, the nation's largest brackish marsh. When too much salt water from the Pacific Ocean backs up through the estuary's turns, fish are threatened, as are the commercial-fishing industry, drinking supplies, and water supplies for cities. All sides agreed to increase inflows of fresh water that can hold off this backwash.

States and local agencies, it was decided, will take a bigger role in setting policies that were once dictated by federal agencies. And funding of up to $60 million per year will be made available to address ''non-flow'' factors, such as water pollution that affects fish and fish habitat.

''The players are gaining a new perspective on how federal, state, and local governments can actually work together for now and in future projects,'' says Allen Garcia, an agricultural consultant and rice grower from Orland, Calif. ''It is the first time ever that all the parties are trying to integrate the needs of everyone else.''

TO further the cause of a long-term solution, a unique entity made up of federal and state agencies has been formed. CALFED Bay-Delta Program participants include the Environmental Protection Agency, the Bureau of Reclamation, US Fish and Wildlife Service, and California's Fish and Game Department, Resources Agency, and State Water Resources Control Board.

''We'd been operating off an inefficient combination of different federal statutes,'' says Dan Nelson, executive director of the San Luis and Delta-Mendota Water Authority. ''Several agencies were stumbling over themselves with rules that could change day by day. Now an umbrella approach is taking everyone's considerations into account - and there is more local control, which is more efficient.''

Current negotiations focus on expanding a water market system established several years ago by Governor Wilson. Under that plan, water-rich agencies - mostly in northern California - could be paid by other agencies to transfer water when needed for the sake of wildlife. The water market in the past has provided for farmers' and municipal governments' water needs, but not used primarily for environmental demands.

Because 80 percent of the state's water falls north of Sacramento but is used south of the capital city, negotiations about water rights have always been highly contentious. State law gives first-use priority to water consumers in counties where the water originates.

But the new rounds of talks are steering clear of the old hurdles. Now, according to David Guy of the California Farm Bureau Federation, ''instead of just asking, 'What do I have to do to keep the other guy off my back,' farmers are asking, 'What can I do to meet someone else's need?' It is forcing a consensus process.''

Another lesson learned in the negotiation process, says Gary Bobker, policy analyst at the Bay Institute of San Francisco, is the necessity of strong environmental laws. After the state was sued by 16 environmental groups for not ensuring ''fishable, swimmable waters'' as is called for in the Clean Water Act, writers of the new accord were forced to include the water needs of fish and wildlife.

Formally, there is a three-year window on the current process, but participants know the regulatory agency given responsibility for enforcement, the state water board, will not wait until the last minute to assess progress.

''If we do not have something substantive within six months to a year, you can be sure the board will move in to clamp down,'' Mr. Guy says.

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