April 5, 2002
CalFed water plan caught in flood of conflicting interests
By DANA WILKIE
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE
WASHINGTON – For the bargain price of roughly $5.25 each,
California taxpayers seven years ago embarked on what may
have seemed a remarkably savvy investment: Their money
would pay to end the decades-long war over California's most
tenuous resource: Water.
In the end, Californians would have a plan to provide enough
water for wildlife, while giving predictable supplies to farmers
and the state's growing population. In short, it was a way to steer those who had long tangled over water away from the courts and to the negotiating table.
It was not a bad investment, considering the promised returns.
Seven years and millions of taxpayer dollars later, many of those intimate with the peacekeeping effort known as "CalFed"
complain that key negotiators have given up and gone to court.
Others have taken their complaints to voters. And still others
have abandoned negotiating for political arm-twisting as they
ask Congress to approve water plans that may ignore years of
delicately crafted deals.
Last week, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., launched the opening salvo in what promises to be a long debate over whether to build new dams and reservoirs. As the state's population mushrooms and California is forced to cut its use of Colorado River water, she warned that the state could face a water crisis rivaling its recent energy emergency – with commensurate shortages and sky-high prices.
"As long as we continue to waste time and money quarreling . . . another valuable resource is going to dry up – funding from
Washington to help California solve its problem," Feinstein told
Silicon Valley business leaders as she urged them to rally behind her plan to make it easier to build places to store water.
"The state failed to properly prepare for the full impact of
electricity deregulation, and we cannot afford to do the same
As Congress gears up to debate California's water shortages,
Feinstein faces tough opposition from conservationists who fear
that big new water projects might exploit the environment and
run up the public bill. And among those who have tried to agree
on the issue, there is now such disenchantment that several are
instead protecting the competing water interests they represent
– north and south, farmers and cities, environmentalists and
"This compromise (envisioned by CalFed) has fallen apart," said
Rep. Ken Calvert, a Corona Republican with a farmer-friendly
bill that significantly changes agreements reached under CalFed.
"The farming community feels they're not being treated fairly.
The urban community feels that water-storage projects aren't
moving forward quickly enough, and that the majority of the
money is being used merely for environmental enhancement."
In arid California, two-thirds of the rain falls in the north, but
two-thirds of the people live in the south. Dams, canals and
pumps move Sierra Nevada snowmelt from the north to Central
Valley farms and to people living in the south. Nearly a quarter
of San Diego's water supply pours from the north; the rest comes from the Colorado River.
But the southward pumping has damaged the Sacramento delta
area's birds and salmon. The result was three decades of lawsuits between environmentalists, farmers and cities – all of whom complained they were being shortchanged by the water needs of the others.
Eighteen state and federal agencies formed CalFed to bring
warring factions together. The idea was to protect the
environment in a gradual manner that was not too disruptive to
the economy, while negotiating ways to provide predictable
water supplies for the future.
Two summers ago, CalFed produced a plan that envisioned
sacrifice by all, but something for everyone. For
environmentalists, it would replenish fish and birds. For
farmers, it guaranteed predictable levels of water even if new
animals became endangered. For Southern Californians, it meant
reliable water supplies by expanding reservoirs at Shasta Lake
and in Contra Costa County, among other measures.
The plan would cost $8.5 billion over three decades. All it
needed was for government to give it money, and the weight of
But Congress has not authorized any new ambitious water
projects, nor appropriated money for them. Instead, those who
did not get what they wanted at the bargaining table are trying
instead to get it the old-fashioned way – by going to lawmakers, to the ballot or to court.
Frustrated by the pace of negotiations, the California Farm
Bureau sued CalFed, saying it has ignored the economic harm
caused by diverting water from farms for the environment. Not
all growers agree with the suit.
California voters this November will be asked to approve a $3.4
billion water bond that would include studying the best
locations for new reservoirs. The ballot measure, crafted with
the help of water agencies, would authorize $825 million for
CalFed to study water storage and levee restoration, among
Many interests remain loyal to CalFed, however, in part because
they fear that without CalFed's money and projects, the courts
would again start setting water policy in California.
Wendy Halverson Martin, CalFed's deputy director, said
California now has much healthier fish populations thanks to
"We are showing that if you invest, the fish will come back," she
Congress agreed to give CalFed $30 million to keep running this
year. But lawmakers are still arguing over key issues:
Should CalFed be replaced by a governing body that makes
water-allocation decisions, as envisioned by Calvert?
Environmentalists fear the board would be stacked with farmers.
Should Calvert's plan make significant changes to the CalFed
deal by building huge reservoirs near the western part of
Sacramento Valley? Water suppliers, such as the San Diego
County Water Authority, see the reservoir as an important
Should legislation specify that those who benefit from
expensive water projects pay for them, something assured by
the CalFed accord, or will taxpayers get stuck with the bill?
Over the years, Congress and California have given CalFed about
$70 million for administration and studies, and nearly $300
million for wildlife restoration. The California portion amounted
to roughly $5.25 for every taxpayer in the state. That does not
include the federal portion.