California Thirsty


Up here in the Sierras, it's snowing. Down in the Sacramento Valley, it's raining.

But unless the downpour keeps on for 40 days and nights as it did back in Genesis, the drought that has gripped California for five years will go unbroken. Even if something that unlikely happens, the American West is in for drier years ahead.

In thirst, as in so many social and political trends, California is ahead of the nation. At local and state levels, officials are trying to conserve and import water in ways that would have been laughed aside not long ago. They seem willing to try almost anything except the most painful remedy of all, politics.

Lake Cachuma, which provides water for the city of Goleta, will be dry by a year from this May. Thus Goleta, on the coast near Santa Barbara, has signed up to bring water from British Columbia by supertanker. That will be the first time any such action has been taken by a U.S. community, but not the last.

Sitting beside all that water in the Pacific Ocean, Goleta and Santa Barbara are jointly planning a desalination plant, but such plants are complicated and expensive. Theirs cannot produce fresh water in time to save the area's farms, even though water has been rationed for two years and some avocado growers are cutting down trees to reduce demand.

The water-tanker scheme was labeled "exotic" by some, but it seems conservative beside the idea of a new pipeline to carry water beneath the Pacific all the way from Alaska to California. It was proposed by Alaska's Gov. Wally Hickel and taken seriously by some California legislators, who are urging it on their new governor, Pete Wilson.

In Sacramento, legislators from both ends of the state have proposed a $2-billion bond issue to finance desalination plants so southern California will not have to depend so heavily on northern California water. This turn toward the sea for potable water just happens to coincide with President Bush's renewed call for oil drilling off the coast, and the continuing threat to Saudi desalination plants by the giant oil spill in the Persian Gulf.

Rationing is not limited to the Santa Barbara-Goleta area, or to dry Southern California. It has been going on for years across much of the state. In Palo Alto, below San Francisco, the city has assigned "water cops," to pedal bikes around residential neighborhoods and issue tickets to those breaking rules on watering lawns, washing cars and hosing down driveways. The system has caught on in other towns.

The dominant attitude in this largely arid state is that water exists to be used, not saved, and many consider any suggestion of cutting back to be un-Californian, if not un-American. In Sacramento, a suggestion that all houses be fitted with water meters outraged voters. In Los Angeles, a city councilman who proposed a ban on new hot tubs and swimming pools backed down when he heard from the public. In San Diego, the mayor is fighting the water authority's effort to cut consumption by 50 percent; the drought may be over soon, she says -- "God doesn't want people to lose their jobs, and neither do I."

All these measures are trifles, however, as long as the biggest water consumer in California insists on business as usual -- and has the political clout to keep going that way. Eighty-five percent of California's water is used by agriculture. Farmers, mostly corporate giants, get it by federal contracts for far less than the government spends to collect and move it. They use it to grow crops that never could exist without irrigation in such a dry climate -- and some of those crops are subsidized by federal crop supports.

City legislators in Sacramento and Washington are trying to reform this long-outdated situation. More than two dozen bills are being looked at in Congress. Some would bring the price of water to California farmers up to its real cost. That, in turn, would cut back farming of arid land and marginal crops, increasing the flow available to cities.

So far, all such efforts have failed. Few statewide or national officials have been willing to describe the problem, much less confront it head-on. The other day Secretary Manuel Lujan, whose Interior Department projects provide much of the disputed water, dared to say "California is probably growing too fast and too big, and at some point there will come a time of reckoning. . . . We have to look at the types of crops that are grown, and perhaps put limits on the expansion of cities," he said.

But politically, Mr. Lujan is no fool: Asked why he didn't change the system of absurdly unfair contracts for big farmers, he said the matter was under study.

Ernest B. Furgurson is associate editor of The Sun.

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