Water Act turns tap toward cities

October 11, 1992|By New York Times News Service

LOS ANGELES -- A new age is dawning in the American West. Under inexorable urban, political and environmental pressures, water -- the lifeblood of this arid region -- has slowly begun to flow away from farms and ranches and toward the big cities.

Congress pushed along the trend on Thursday by passing the Omnibus Water Act, a turning point in federal water policy.

The act would encourage farmers to sell their water to the cities and would reserve large amounts of water to repair environmental damage in California. It would also pay for the final stage of a new dam project in Utah drawn up with the blessings of environmentalists.

If President Bush signs the bill, it would mean that the arid Salt Lake City area, already bumping against the limits of urban growth for lack of water, would be able to obtain water to sustain population growth of nearly 30 percent over the next three decades.

It is also likely to mean a smaller, possibly more efficient agricultural industry in California and easing of water restrictions in the state's cities.

As ever with water, the politics are complex. President Bush is under pressure to veto the bill from farmers, who don't like the idea of giving up any more water after six years of drought or the uncertainty of future supplies of water.

But Mr. Bush is coming under equally strong pressure to sign it from other Western Republicans, from Utah, Arizona and 14 other states that would benefit from dam and hydroelectric projects in the bill, as well as business interests.

The California portion is a modified version of legislation by Rep. George Miller, a Democrat who represents the fast-growing and thirsty suburbs east of San Francisco.

He has argued that the time has come to share the 8 million acre-feet of water a year produced by the federal Central Valley Project, a system of 20 dams and 500 miles of canals that supplies 3 million acres of farmland and some urban users in the San Francisco Bay area. (An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons, or about enough to supply two typical households for a year.)

"This really is the difference between the past and the future for California," Mr. Miller said. "For the past 50 years, agriculture has had a contractual and political lock on the use of water. This legislation breaks that."

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