California Water Program Lacks Support in Congress

With California's energy crisis fresh in mind, lawmakers are trying to avoid a similar mess with water.
However, they have so far been unable to overcome their differences and clear the way through Congress for a program designed to solve water problems from the Bay Area to Southern California.
The California Federal Bay-Delta Program, an agreement designed to restore the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta as well as ensure a reliable supply of water for farmers and municipal water users, needs $2.5 billion in federal money to help cover its $9 billion cost.
The lack of money from Washington puts the fragile CALFED agreement at risk and jeopardizes restoration efforts for a region that feeds the nation's most productive farmland while providing drinking water to 22 million Californians.
"Electricity is a forerunner of water and as sure as I'm sitting here now, if we don't move with CALFED, the day will come where . . . we'll end up rationing water and that will destroy the economy of California," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.
Gov. Gray Davis and then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt signed the final CALFED agreement two years ago, the culmination of years of negotiations among federal, state and local officials, environmentalists and farmers.
The premise driving the agreement was that everyone would get something, but no party would get everything it wanted.
CALFED would provide money for buying and flooding delta islands, purchasing flood plain, installing new fish screens, raising dams, expanding reservoirs and building new water storage projects. It would be costly, but it would result in secure future water supplies for a state that is expected to be home to 50 million people by 2020.
The agreement is proving even harder to live up to than it was to draft. Lawmakers from other states, particularly in the West, are unwilling to let a water bill move through Congress without adding projects for their constituents.
Legislation in the House authored by California Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Corona, already has been broadened to include a grant program for other Western water projects. Feinstein said she is willing to consider something similar in her Senate bill.
But when two other California Democrats in the House introduced their own CALFED bill in April – intended to be similar to Feinstein's legislation – they intentionally left out the Western grant program.
"The (Calvert) bill as it now stands . . . is better for Utah than it is for Northern California," said Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D-Pleasanton. Rep. Grace Napolitano, D-Norwalk, is Tauscher's partner on the latest CALFED legislation.
Then, there is the cost. CALFED calls for about $2.5 billion in federal money through 2007. When state and federal budgets were flush, money was less of an issue. But when senators questioned Feinstein about the price tag at a hearing on her bill in May, she offered to slash the cost by more than half.
Her bill could be taken up in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in early June. There is no timetable for consideration of Calvert's bill.
The Bush administration has voiced support for CALFED, although it was drafted by Democrats – the Clinton and Davis administrations. Yet environmentalists worry that in the implementation of the agreement, the Interior Department is more likely to heed agricultural concerns.
Even among the California lawmakers, there are differences about how to interpret the agreement. Some, like Rep. Cal Dooley, D-Hanford, want to ensure that growers on the west side of the San Joaquin River south of the delta are guaranteed an acceptable level of water delivery.
Calvert's bill currently includes such a provision, but most Californians in Congress oppose guaranteeing water deliveries to one group of farmers.
Meanwhile, some environmentalists would prefer to kill the large water storage projects, arguing that they are too costly and harmful to the environment. But Feinstein has resisted pleas to alter the basic agreement.
"If you're not going to build big dams, you're not going to be able to store water from wet years," she said. "Without that, you can't save the fish either. It has got to be a balanced water program."
Many players in California's water world look upon the stalemate in Washington with alarm. "CALFED is challenging all of us," wrote Phillip J. Pace, chairman of the Metropolitan Water District, in a letter to Napolitano.
Pace said the giant Southern California water agency could live with just about any CALFED bill that emerged from Congress. But he singled out for opposition the assurance of water to the growers.
Tupper Hull, a spokesman for Westlands Water District, who represents growers on the west side of the San Joaquin, said his organization would fight for some guarantee, which he said west side farmers have been unfairly denied.
Yet Hull said chaos would ensue if CALFED were to collapse.
"We've looked over the precipice and it's not a pretty picture," he said.
The drought of the late 1980s and early 1990s helped focus warring parties on the need to come together. Feinstein said she has seen few issues in her long political career that are as contentious as water.
Yet, she said, in the absence of a crisis, Californians seem unwilling to acknowledge the importance of protecting their water today.
"It takes an emergency to generate the critical mass," Feinstein said. "We can't be deceived by that."


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