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California Rethinks Water Issues

With long drought over, state focuses on new methods of conserving precious resource

AMERICA'S largest farm state, producer of half the nation's fruits and vegetables, has had six years of drought temporarily slaked by the biggest flurry of storms in years.

But the time to reinvent from the top down has come for a burgeoning number of private growers, environmentalists, and bureaucrats - visionaries and stick-in-the-mud type, alike. They are coming out of the ground like worms after a rain.

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"This is the greenest I've seen the state in 20 years," says rice farmer Allen Garcia, sitting in a small plane flying over the Sacramento Valley in full bloom. "But if we don't plan for the next 20 years, California agriculture will be a dying business."

Farmers have long enjoyed 80 percent of the state's water, while 20 percent has been divvied up by urban dwellers and recreational users. Drought, federal crackdowns to save endangered species, and burgeoning population needs are changing all that.

To cope with the influx of 18 million new inhabitants since the late 1960s, California has paved over more farmland than the area of New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Jersey combined. Twenty million more inhabitants are expected by 2010, and the time has come to prepare for where they are going to live and what they are going to eat and drink, Mr. Garcia says.

What is decided here has major implications for the price of everything from almonds to alfalfa, beans to barley, in supermarkets across America.

Because he peppers his conversation with phrases like "coordinated resource planning," and "multiple-use, sustainable agriculture," Garcia has been labeled a progressive by environmentalists. Twenty years ago, he was growing rice in ways that only last year became a model for a major program to multiply waterfowl wetlands for the Sacramento Valley. Water think-a-thon

Today, on oak-studded chaparral near here, Garcia and the Northern California Water Association (NCWA) are hosting a futuristic, water think-a-thon to consider seriously what else must be done.

At the meeting, the state's top farm, agriculture, and environmental officials will rub shoulders with ordinary farmers and field conservationists. A day of aerial tours and barbecue brainstorming is planned as a precursor to a more detailed convention here in the fall.

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"This state bloomed from desert, but there hasn't been a new dam, levee, or aqueduct built in this state since the 1960s," says Kip Solinsky, NCWA's executive director. "Everyone knows there are other ways to increase the yield of water and manage what we already have. But we need to talk and test the concepts."

The six-year crisis here has garnered new support for water-trading markets that can disperse surpluses and deficits. New federal, state, and local legislation has been chipping away at the distribution of 80 percent of water to farms. New ways to pump and store water underground, to reclaim it after use in households and to conserve it, are being considered.

"This is absolutely a turning point for the state," says Sam Yassa, research associate at the Natural Resources Defense Council. Early promises by Gov. Pete Wilson (R) to guarantee protections for the state's environmentally troubled Sacramento Delta - a Grand Central Station for water deliveries north and south - have been delayed.

But federal legislation signed in October sets aside 800,000 acre feet of water for environmental use from fisheries to wildlife refuges before agricultural and urban allotments.

"This legislation is providing the incentive for California agriculture to develop other water sources through efficiency and improved management," Mr. Yassa says. Laws change water distribution

New laws also have provided $1 million for the Federal Bureau of Reclamation to study ways to generate or replenish the 800,000 acre feet for farmers. And a new state bill authorizes the search for new sites for off-stream water storage.

Because 75 percent of the state's water comes from the north, the pressure is being felt here more severely. Water activists recount the painful history of the 100-mile-long Owens Valley, whose streams and farmland were leeched dry in the 1920s to support Los Angeles's growth.

Although several of the attendees at today's meeting favor building new reservoirs to meet new demands, Dave Kennedy, director of the state Department of Water Resources, says California's days of dam building are over. "There are very few dam sites available," he says, "and those are prohibitively expensive and environmentally unacceptable."

Marc Reisner, author of "Cadillac Desert" and one of the West's top water experts, agrees for different reasons. "The EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] will disallow diverting water from streams as endangering salmon and other endangered species. Dams might be a gigantic expense for naught," he says.

Other ideas gaining new currency are so-called "conjunctive use" programs which alternate use of ground and stream water to minimize winter stream diversions that kill salmon in diversion pumps.

Several private/government partnership ideas are in embryo stages. The Stoney Creek Watershed Project is a grand-scale effort by the US Department of Agriculture's Soil Conservation Service to improve the water-holding capabilities of soil by managing animal herds.

And Allen Garcia's rice fields have been held up as an idea whose time has come - providing 95 percent of a natural habitat at a fraction of the cost of setting aside nature preserves, and without sapping local communities of livelihood or tax income.

"The future of wildlife is going to be on the farms and ranches of the US," says Jack Payne, executive director of Ducks Unlimited, a partner in the rice project.

He adds, "Conservationists, farmers, and urban users are going to have to literally and figuratively meet eye to eye in the fields."

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