Skip Navigation

Go With The Flow On Water Legislation

George Skelton - La Times


Negotiators are on the brink of achieving the most comprehensive California water legislation in half a century. They're also in danger of an embarrassing belly flop.

Negotiators are on the brink of achieving the most comprehensive California water legislation in half a century. They're also in danger of an embarrassing belly flop.

Both sides – whether talking about Democrats vs. Republicans, environmentalists vs. farmers, cities vs. burgs – have attained their top priorities, realizing gains that seemed almost impossible just 18 months ago.

GOP lawmakers and San Joaquin Valley growers have secured a pathway leading to probable construction of a long-controversial canal to carry fresh Sacramento River water around the fragile, brackish delta and directly into an aqueduct heading south. Also, a new state water planning process would likely result in an additional dam or two.

Everyone who depends on delta water -- and most Californians do -- would wind up with a more reliable flow.

Democrats and environmentalists long have fought against both the so-called peripheral canal and what's euphemistically referred to as "above-ground storage," fearing they'd lead to increased water exports from north to south; more for irrigation and swimming pools, less for fish and wildlife.

But the trade-off for acquiescing to the canal and dams is an ecologically restored delta, a once-fertile estuary that's now in danger of becoming a dead sea for salmon and other fish. The Dems and enviros also would gain significantly improved statewide water conservation.

Financing for the delta restoration and up to half the dam construction would come from a $9.4-billion bond proposal on the November 2010 ballot. All the canal cost and at least half the dam funding would be footed by the water users.

The GOP and the farm lobby until recently have shown no interest in fisheries restoration -- indeed, belittling such efforts -- and have been suspicious of state-imposed water conservation. But federal courts have cut off water for irrigation and preserved it for the endangered tiny delta smelt and San Joaquin River salmon. So until the delta is restored ecologically, farmers will be forced to fallow fields and let orchards die.

Meanwhile, there has been a gradual realization among many environmentalists that the biggest threat to the delta is not a carefully regulated peripheral canal. It's the current water transfer system with its giant pumps that have confused, sucked up and decimated the fish.

"The ecosystem of the delta has collapsed," says Barry Nelson, water project director for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "We're risking the permanent loss of the California salmon fishing industry."

Nelson adds that, with or without a new delta plumbing system, agriculture and urban interests "quietly acknowledge that we're not going back to the record water diversions of the past."

That's why big interests -- the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the Westlands Water District in the San Joaquin Valley -- aren't really looking for more northern water. They're seeking a more dependable stream.


For the full LA Times article click here