Sunday, November 15, 2009




In all the celebratory, back-slapping press conferences and statements following this month’s agreement on a potentially landmark state water management plan, no one so much as used the term “peripheral canal.”

For sure this water deal will not produce a carbon copy of the 1982 referendum that killed the last previous major California water deal, one that called for building a canal around periphery of the Sacramento-San Joaquin river Delta to bring Northern California water to Central and Southern California.

That’s because a popular vote is already part of the water plan – since the most important components of this deal are contained in a proposed $11 billion bond issue. Like all state bonds, these must be approved in a popular vote before they can be sold. That vote comes next November. No one wanting to stymie this plan will have to run a petition campaign, and the campaign around the bonds already shapes up as at least a partial rerun of 1982.

For sure this plan becomes an empty shell if the bonds don’t pass.

Since a majority of current voters were either not born by 1982 or were too young to vote, a recap of what happened then is in order: Legislators approved and then-Gov. Jerry Brown signed off on a proposed concrete-lined ditch to move Northern California river water and rain runoff south, preventing much of it from flowing out to sea through the Delta and the San Francisco Bay.

This was robbery, screamed many in the north. Their water would flow south and they would be left high and dry, with ruined fisheries and rotten water quality in the Delta.

The result was the largest north-south ballot split ever seen in California. The referendum to kill the canal lost by about a 65-35 percent margin south of the Tehachapi Mountains which rise between Bakersfield and Los Angeles. But almost everywhere else it swept more than 90 percent of the vote. The canal died and the entire concept became political anathema until the current three-year drought caused farms to be fallowed, water rationing in many cities and record unemployment in some parts of the Central Valley.

The canal remains sufficiently taboo that it wasn’t a formal part of the new water deal. Rather, that arrangement calls for assuring water quality in the Delta, careful monitoring and restoration of ground water basins and aquifers, capturing far more rain and flood runoff than today, plus construction of new surface storage facilities, better known as reservoirs. Left unsaid was that it might take a canal to make a lot of the newly captured water useful.

Unsaid, that is, until Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger just happened to mention it the afternoon after the water package passed, during an appearance in the anti-canal hotbed of Stockton.

At last, he said, the state can “fix the Delta and build a canal around the Delta.” Next morning’s headline in the Stockton Record: “Governor Drops ‘Bomb’ on Delta.”

The battle was on.

Instantly, the north-south split reappeared. Democratic Assemblywoman Noreen Evans, a candidate for state Senate whose district includes Santa Rosa, Napa and Vallejo, quickly called the water deal “the same tired story all over again.”

Fanning flames of regional chauvinism, she added that, “The Central Valley and Southern California plan to take water from the North by building a peripheral canal. The rub is that they want Northern California to pay for it, too. All Northern Californians get from this bond is the privilege of paying the bill.” That’s partly true.

But the bond would not pay for any canal. As contemplated, water districts selling the supplies it conveys would cover costs by raising rates for their tens of millions of customers. Whether Northern Californians benefit might depend on your definition of Northern California. Much of the San Francisco Bay area, for example, would draw from new supplies just as it now does from the state Water Project.

Northern California also would get increased flood control, preventing hundreds of millions of dollars in water damage in wet years. It would benefit from levee repairs and restoration of salmon and other fisheries, plus new controls on water quality in the Delta and underground aquifers.

But these realities – some of which were also built into the 1982 deal – might bear far less influence than emotional appeals like Evans’.

There are some differences this time. For one, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who as San Francisco mayor was the first to sign the 1982 anti-canal referendum petitions, backs today’s plan.

Conservation groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Defense Fund, many of whose members strongly opposed the canal last time, helped shape the new plan.

So the outcome next year might be different. For sure this campaign will be more than mere déjà vu, if only because concerns about the burden of repaying $11 billion in bonds will get almost as much attention as the more emotionally-charged issues at the heart of the long-running north-south animosities.

Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit

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