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The Great Canal Debate

Gold made California famous, but water made it rich.

The still-growing Los Angeles megalopolis and the prodigious San Joaquin Valley farms that grow everything from oranges to cotton rely on water transported hundreds of miles - from the Owens Valley, the Sacramento River Delta, and the Colorado River - to arid southern California.

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Now, following through on a state water plan adopted in 1960, the thirsty south wants California voters, in a June 8 election, to authorize construction of the ''peripheral canal'' - a 43-mile-long, 400-foot-wide sluiceway that would funnel water from the Sacramento River into the California Aqueduct.

The canal is ''peripheral'' because it would be dug along the eastern edge of the delta, a 1,100-square-mile ''sponge'' through which 40 percent of the surface water in California filters into San Francisco Bay.

But the delta is far from a natural area; it contains some 300,000 acres of fragile, man-made farmland. Use of delta water for irrigation and the diversion of Sacramento-San Joaquin river-system water even before it reaches the delta have made necessary many artificial measures to keep salt water from advancing so far inland as to affect crops, fisheries, and municipal water supplies. Fierce arguments now rage over whether the peripheral canal will improve or exacerbate this situation.

In 1980 the state Legislature approved Senate bill 200 (SB200) authorizing the canal, and Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. signed it into law. But that was not the end of the 15-year debate over the canal. It was the beginning of a statewide battle for the vote of every Californian who goes to the polls in June. For, in line with longstanding tradition in the Golden State, canal opponents gathered enough petition signatures to require a referundum.

Powerful interests for and against the project - with an official $7 billion construction price tag that opponents say will ultimately be more like $27 billion - quickly organized to press their arguments on an electorate that tends to divide between arid south and not-so-dry north on the issue.

As is usual with such water projects that ''tinker'' with the natural order of things, the ''experts'' can't be certain as to the consequences.

Those who identify with certain vested interests or rigid points of view - regional, commercial, environmental - are likely to vote from that standpoint. But for the millions of citizens who conscientiously want to make a choice that future Californians can live with, the decision is not so simple.

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It is further complicated by provisions added to SB200 and another law approved by an earlier referendum which seek to protect Sacramento River Delta farms and fisheries, northern ''wild'' rivers, and San Francisco Bay Area water quality. Proposition 8, the referendum measure passed in 1980 to protect wild rivers, does not become effective unless Proposition 9, the peripheral canal authorization, is approved. This has caused considerable confusion and some rather strange alignments in opposition to Proposition 9.

The basic - one could even say traditional - alignment on the peripheral canal is regional: the north, where the water is, against; the south, which wants the water, for the project. After that, it gets complicated.

Most agricultural interests, especially the large ''agribusinesses,'' are in the expected corner - pro-canal. But two major farming combines, the J.G. Boswell Company and Salyer Land Company, have contributed to the anti-canal campaign, apparently because they feel restrictions in the law would keep the big farms from getting the very water the canal is designed to deliver.

Other opponents include a number of environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth, delta farmers, commercial and sports fishermen, and municipalities whose officials are not at all certain their water supplies will be protected.

Governor Brown - like his father, former Gov. Edmund G. Brown Sr. - backed the canal proposal and willingly signed SB200. But the governor, now campaigning for the US Senate, says he will leave the decision to the voters. The issue is clearly an awkward one for Brown, who finds himself opposing many of his liberal constituents.

Besides the Metropolitan Water District (Met), the powerful Los Angeles area public authority that controls water use, and the agribusinesses (which include several large oil companies), a southern California-based group called Citizens for Water is conducting a major pro-canal campaign.

Although much of the anti-canal effort is based in the San Francisco area, a Los Angeles-based group called WATER (Working Alliance to Equalize Rates) is mounting a considerable campaign against the project. It has at least two allies who might be called defectors from the usually solid ranks of the Met: John Burnham, who retired recently after 16 years as chief economist for the water district, and Robert Gottlieb, a member of the Met's board of directors.

Mr. Burnham, who broke ranks shortly before his retirement but says he left the agency last May under no pressure, has furnished the arguments being used against the canal in southern California. He says the facility ''is not needed, '' that the state ''can't afford it,'' and that because of restrictions in the laws, the Met ''might not get the water'' when it would be most needed - in drought years.

Mr. Gottlieb, the only one of the 52 Met directors opposed to the canal, agrees with Burnham. He says the cost of water from the canal would be ''so extreme as to not justify construction.''

Scholarly opinion seems overwhelmingly against building the canal at this time. Carl Pope of the Sierra Club sums up the conclusions of a number of researchers when he says that ''California water policy needs to be brought into the 20th century.'' His argument is that a policy written into law in 1960 and based to a great extent on pre-World War II concepts, is hardly the proper guide for the 1980s.

Conventional political wisdom has it that in a straight regional vote the canal would be easily approved because of the greater population in the south. A January sampling by Mervin D. Field's California Poll showed that, statewide, 42 percent favored the canal, 37 percent were opposed, and 21 percent had no opinion. Northern California figures were 23 percent in favor, 64 opposed, and 13 no opinion; in southern California 57 were in favor, 16 opposed, and 27 had no opinion. (Canal opponents found two slight but favorable trends: last October , 15 percent in southern Calfironia were opposed and 26 had no opinion.)

Editorials in two of the state's leading newspapers illustrate the division on the canal issue. The Sacramento Bee recently stated: ''At this point, the benefits do not appear to justify the costs; the questions overwhelm the available answers. We're not certain that the canal is not needed for all time, nor should rejection of this project be regarded as the end of water development in California.''

The Los Angeles Times, which canal opponents charge has ''managed'' news about the the controversy because of its owners' vested interests, has run many editorials in support of the project. One stated: ''Californians are waking up to the fact that the canal is a must. Repeat: a must. . . . Water made California possible. . . . Without it the state would have remained a mere western outpost of the United States.''

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