Long Drought Heightens Struggle over Movement of Water in California

By Daniel B. Wood, The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, May 27, 1992 | Go to article overview
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Long Drought Heightens Struggle over Movement of Water in California

Daniel B. Wood, The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor

THE state that bloomed from desert to produce half the United States's fruits and vegetables and the world's seventh-largest economy is now in the fight of its life over the primary commodity that got it there: water.

The struggle over water is traditionally an urban-versus-rural one: Cities grumble that 80 percent of water goes to farmers. Now environmentalist voices have entered the fray in stronger-than-ever numbers, heightening political tensions among local, state, and federal authorities.

"We've got historic scarcity added to the most convoluted and complex legal structures ever devised for the movement of water," says Mary Ann Warmerdam, director of natural resources for the California Farm Bureau. "The situation is quite heated."

Six years of drought have left the state's two largest reservoirs at historically low levels. Several aquifers are reaching the point of collapse, after which some experts say they can never be replenished. Depleted wetlands and riparian habitats are compounding efforts to protect such key wildlife as the chinook salmon, delta smelt, and striped bass.

"California's early mistake of building a few big projects rather than hosts of smaller ones is catching up with us," says Marc Reisner, author of "Cadillac Desert," a noted work on the American West and its disappearing water.

The state is taking advantage of the crisis to garner support for new programs that will carry into the 21st century: water-trading markets that can disperse surpluses and deficits; federal legislation that could redistribute the 80-percent-to-20-percent advantage long enjoyed by agriculture over cities; new storage banks, reclamation, and conservation procedures; and moves away from flood irrigation to drip irrigation.

Officials are looking to desalination as well as to new ways of transferring water and of combining the use of both surface and ground water for supplemental supplies. "California invented itself through water," says historian Kevin Starr, who has chronicled the century-long building of dams, reservoirs, and aqueducts that turned arid valleys into oases. "Now the reinvention of the new, limited California is coming through water."

According to Ms. Warmerdam, the state's gigantic construction program of dams, levees, and aqueducts ended in the early 1960s, when the state's population was roughly half its current 30 million. But with minor exceptions, no additional carrying and pumping capacity has been added since the late 1960s. With an influx of population continuing at about 600,000 a year, with high concentrations in the more-arid interior, new constituencies are demanding that different water balances be struck.

As they do, heightened calls for enforcement of environmental laws - exacerbated by high-profile fights over saving specific wildlife species - have made building new infrastructure more contentious. The costs and disputed locations of such dams as the Auburn Dam north of Sacramento, one on the Santa Margarita River near San Diego, and one on Sespe Creek in Ventura County have extended disputes over construction into decades-long battles.

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