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West's Water Riddles

SOUTHERN Californians have been getting more than enough rain lately, but they still could face a dry-season deficit.

Southern Arizona farmers have an abundant new source of Colorado River water with the completion of the Central Arizona Project (CAP), a 336-mile, $3.6 billion aqueduct carrying Colorado River water into the desert south of Phoenix and Tucson - but most of them can't afford it.

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Whether or not this winter's unusually heavy rain and snowfall signal a meaningful climatic shift in the Western mountains and coastal areas is a matter for conjecture at this point; some experts say it's possible.

Possibly the most significant event affecting California's water needs and distribution was George Bush's signing, Oct. 30, of an omnibus federal water act which will more tightly manage the use of water from California's (federal) Central Valley Water Project and divert a significant amount of water to such nonagricultural purposes as wildlife protection.

Meanwhile, farmers in southern Arizona are stunned by the high cost of water from the CAP, ranging from $25 to $52 per acre-foot. They are wondering what went wrong with their dream of agricultural abundance.

For years, the Western states wrangled over distribution of water from the region's mountain streams, especially the Colorado River. Huge federally funded dams impounded the precious water - providing flood control, generation of electricity, and recreation.

The Colorado flowed south and west, finally exhausting itself near the US-Mexican border. The CAP was the last big project along its course.

Arizona's major urban centers - principally Phoenix and Tucson - don't need Colorado River water now; projections indicate they have adequate water for some 37 years.

The idea behind the aqueduct was that it would enable now-struggling farmers to prosper from the water while the state's two major urban areas increasingly sprawled over the area, leaving some agricultural enclaves and eventually taking over the cost of Colorado River water.

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Southern Arizona farmers have been hanging on, hoping to reap bountiful crops for many years before giving way to urban sprawl.

Former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt (1978-87), who was a major backer of the Colorado River project, becomes United States secretary of the interior this week. It seems likely that, in his new position, Mr. Babbitt will make an effort to find a reasonable and not-too-costly solution to the CAP debacle.

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