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Keeping Water Wars at Bay

California's Grand Central Station for water braces for new federal regulations on use

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ARMERS, industrialists, and city dwellers in this part of the state are on edge - they may never enjoy first dibs on California's limited water supplies again.

From a small plane gliding low over the Sacramento Valley, Rice Industry Association Field Manager Bob Herkert nudged me as we flew over tens of thousands of geese wintering on flooded rice fields below: ``If the south takes our water, this waterfowl habitat could be history,'' he said.

He'll find out on D-day, Dec. 15, when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announces a host of water-quality and environmental standards for the Bay-Delta region, a sort of Grand Central Station for 75 percent of the state's water deliveries. Because the state itself has failed to come up with standards ensuring ``fishable, swimmable waters'' under requirements of the Clean Water Act - and has been sued by several environmental groups - the federal government is moving to promulgate its own standards.

For 90 days after next week's announcements are made, a public comment period will ensue in which all players from residents and industry to farmers and environmentalists will have their say at seemingly endless hearings.

The 17 states known as America's arid West will be tuned to the proceedings as well, hoping to decipher implications for the water wars playing out elsewhere.

``How California deals with fixing its Delta region is the most broad-reaching resource issue in the West,'' says Allen Garcia, board member of the Northern California Water Association. ``How much water gets delivered where and why is the driving force behind how society continues to develop here.''

Though exact figures have yet to be announced, preliminary estimates released by the EPA last month show that the new standards will require increased flows of water into San Francisco Bay. Water allocations to agriculture as well as to municipal and industrial uses will likely be reduced.

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