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California water seen as environment issue, not North vs. South

Sooner or later southern Californians are going to get more water from the north. And yet the newest proposal to do it has rekindled the political rift over water policy that makes compromise difficult.

The new plan would expand channels feeding the main north-south aqueduct, and it raises issues tinged with sentiment that is typically Californian. Traditionally labeled a north-south rivalry, the water issue today is more correctly an illustration of a statewide credo often that gives equal weight to the often conflicting goals of environ-mentalism and economic prosperity.

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Gov. George Deukmejian's water plan - called the ''through-delta canal'' - would increase water flowing through the Sacramento-San

Joaquin Delta by creating a new channel and widening and deepening existing ones on the eastern edge of the delta flowing south.

The plan raises concerns about effects on water quality, fisheries, and ecology of the delta just west of San Francisco Bay.

Meanwhile, water officials expect that within 20 years, water supplies to the south will not meet demand if more water is not found to accommodate expected growth and the certain loss of a portion of Colorado River water to the new Arizona project tapping into that river next year.

The issue has already been debated once with the Peripheral Canal project, overwhelmingly defeated by California voters in 1982. That plan was an attempt to divert water from the delta's northern tributary, the Sacramento River, around the delta and south.

The concept, though not the route, is the same with the new project: soak more water from the rich delta. Opponents and supporters of the plan admit it is inevitable that southern Californians will get more northern water. Water contracts promise the South more than twice its current annual 750,000 acre-foot supply. (An acre-foot is the amount of water one foot deep that would cover one acre of land.)

The governor is adamant about the new through-delta project. He has hinted that if he cannot get the legislative support he needs to ensure the plan, he may exercise the authority given by state water law to build a water-transfer project in the delta without legislative approval.

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The delta - a 300,000-acre maze of sloughs and channels - already supplies the southern California region 400 miles south with roughly one-quarter of its water, explains Jay Malinowski, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Water District. (The MWD is the largest water utility in the southern region, serving six counties. It includes a small portion of Los Angeles, which has its own water supply at Mono Lake and the Owens Valley.)

The MWD gets half its annual 1.5 million acre-feet of water from the Colorado River and half from the Delta. Mr. Deukmejian's plan would bring roughly 500,000 acre-feet a year of extra water south at a cost of $1 billion over 20 years, says David Kennedy, director of the state Department of Water Resources.

The scenario has been portrayed as the North withholding its much-desired water resources from the growing, arid South. But in a typical winter week, enough water flows out of the delta and into the Pacific Ocean to provide southern California with all of its water needs for a year, Mr. Malinowski says.

''We're long past the point where water is propelling growth. Economic forces are propelling it, and it will take place irrespective of this great debate,'' Mr. Kennedy says.

The real issue is environmental. Water quality is in question because the project would draw the good-quality waters of the Sacramento River down through the delta into the pumping stations located in the poor-quality waters of the San Joaquin River. The San Joaquin, says Corey Brown, a lawyer for Friends of the River, is an ''agricultural sewer'' full of runoff with chemicals from fertilizer and pesticides used in the San Joaquin Valley. Many of the contaminants cannot be successfully filtered or neutralized in treatment processes, environmentalists argue.

The delta environment is already compromised by a complex system of levies and dredging, environmentalists say. Further, they add, the powerful pumping system that would pull fresh water south and out of the delta correspondingly would bring ocean salt water farther into the delta and even cause the San Joaquin to flow upstream to the pumps. These influences would change the marsh habitat as well as endanger fisheries.

Commercial and amateur fishing groups are willing to compromise, says Roy Haile, president of the California Sport Fishing Protection Alliance. Allowing more water to flow down the eastern side of the delta, as the plan does, will eliminate some of the reverse flow of the San Joaquin, he says, and confuse the fish less. But, he adds, the fishing industry will back the plan only if there are guarantees of funding to develop fisheries in other streams around the state.

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