Quenching California's thirst

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Quenching California's thirst

The southern region faces a potential crisis as supplies diminish.

June 9, 2001

By DAN NOWICKI and JOHN HOWARD The Orange County Register

WATER from the Santa Ana River exits below the Seven Oaks Dam near Highland, on its way to Orange County, where some of it will replenish the water table. The state may be encountering a water crisis. Photo: Jebb Harris / The Register Demand for water is rising. And so are tensions.

The northern part of the state, which has most of the water, balks at sending more to the Central Valley and Southern California.

This north-south feud, the backbone of California's water wars, remains intense despite a state-federal brokered compromise. Northerners complain that too much water already heads south, hurting their economy and environment, and harming fish populations.

But farmers to the south say they need water to grow crops. And further south still, authorities say they need the water to satisfy the swelling Southern California population.

The demand is driven largely by the state's growing population, but also by a 1992 federal law requiring more supplies for environmental protections. That law, the Central Valley Improvement Act, required additional water to be diverted to protect fish and wildlife in the fragile delta east of San Francisco, leaving less water for farms and cities to the south.

Michael Jackson, a water expert and attorney for the Regional Council of Rural Counties, believes California has put off pursuing major public water improvements and innovative technology out of fear of increasing water rates, including residential rates. Higher rates for customers translate into unhappy voters, who put political heat on the administration that orders them, he said.

For example, the state has taken only small steps toward seawater desalinization - which officials say is cost-prohibitive - despite the Pacific Ocean being "in the back yards of the folks on the coast," Jackson said.

As with the energy crisis, a major problem with the state's water system is that it is aging and hasn't kept pace with exploding demand. Some of that infrastructure is being rebuilt gradually with bond money approved by voters, such as municipal drinking water systems, delta channels, water-treatment plants and flumes.

Cutback in use of Colorado River water

The last major expansion of California's water system occurred 40 years ago with the approval of the State Water Project, which provides and transports roughly a fourth of Southern California's water. The remainder comes almost exclusively from the Colorado River and local ground water, the major exception being the Owens Valley water taken by the city of Los Angeles.

As Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., points out, the State Water Project was built "when Pat Brown was governor ... before 1966 and the state was about 16 million people." Projections show the state's current population of about 35 million could hit 50 million within 20 years.

Moreover, a deal with Arizona and Nevada over the next 15 years will wean California from the surplus Colorado River water.

That means California's current share of the Colorado River water, about 5.2 million acre-feet, will drop to 4.4 million acre-feet - a drop that concerns California officials. Southern California gets about a fourth of its water from the Colorado River.

Ground water to be supplemental supply

How will that decrease be made up? Partly by conservation, partly by more and better storage, but largely by tapping ground-water supplies that already have been sorely drained. That last item has environmentalists worried.

"That's where the real California water crisis is, in the ground water. We overdraft the ground water year after year," said Jerry Meral, head of the Planning and Conservation League and a former top state water official.

The combination of factors - dry weather, stressed storage, a growing population and the cut in supplies - is increasingly getting politicians' attention.

"I think the electricity crisis could be a precursor of where we're going to be with water," Feinstein said.

Said Jackson: "I think California is facing a water crisis - and when we get done with the energy crisis, maybe we will have learned that you just can't sweep these things under the rug."


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), June 09, 2001

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