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Environment: Quenching California’s Thirst

4 minute read

California has everything—usually in the wrong place. While the north has a water surplus, for example, most of the state’s 20 million people live in the parched south. Since these people are loath to move to the north’s watersheds, the state’s indefatigable engineers have devised a Faustian scheme to move the watersheds south. Ecologists, and a good many other Californians, are appalled.

For ten years engineers have toiled at the $3 billion California Water Plan (see map) and ignored critics who consider the project environmentally bankrupt. Last month the builders got a major boost when California voters approved an interest increase on $600 million worth of state bonds needed to continue the project. Now the backlash has begun.

Hoping to halt the project, four farmers have filed a suit against the state and federal governments. Alvin Duskin, a San Francisco clothing manufacturer and environmental crusader, placed full-page ads blasting the scheme in the San Francisco Chronicle and Wall Street Journal. Ecologist Kenneth E.F. Watt of the University of California at Davis blasted the electorate. “People are stupid,” he fumed. “The public almost invariably votes the wrong way.”

Immense Feat. Back in the 1950s, when the plan was promoted by Southern California land developers, it seemed a safe, simple way to link the north’s water to the south’s thirst. Ecology was a secondary consideration—if it was considered at all.

At the heart of the scheme is a 43-mile-long canal that will carry 4.1 million acre-feet* of water per year from the Sacramento River and divert it around the Delta—a huge, fertile area of meandering waterways near San Francisco that is irrigated by the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers. This water will be pumped through nearly 700 miles of concrete aqueducts to the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California. The diversion, say engineers, will save much of the river water that now flows through the Delta into San Francisco Bay and is lost to the ocean. All together, the vast network of canals, aqueducts, dams and pumping stations will extend along two-thirds of the state and constitute one of the most complex water delivery systems in the world.

According to some ecologists, it will also be one of the most dangerous. They argue that lowering the water level of the Delta will allow salt water from San Francisco Bay to flow into the verdant Delta region and upset its ecological balance. Other ecologists predict that the diversion of water from the Delta will disrupt its natural flushing action, which is essential to the removal of industrial and agricultural wastes flowing into the bay.

Death Trap. There are other complaints. “Los Angeles needs air far more than it needs water,” says Jerome Waidie, a U.S. Congressman from the Delta town of Antioch. “Why then,” asks Waidie, “should we increase the pressures on that limited air supply by a governmental policy that will enable barren acres to develop more subdivisions, more automobiles, and more people?” According to Ecologist Watt, the influx of water will worsen Los Angeles smog, which in turn will transform the area into a “death trap.”

For all that, opponents of the California Water Plan face a fait accompli: more than 75% of the system is already built and plans call for completion of the whole package by 1990. Moreover, the sheer challenge of the feat has become an end in itself. As one water engineer put it: “I see no sense in leaving several hundred miles of concrete ditch uncompleted.”

*An acre-foot is the volume of water required to cover an acre of land to a depth of one foot.

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