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Arnold revives the canal, and it’s about time

Can a virtually unanimous vote be wrong? When it comes to the long-reviled Peripheral Canal project to bring Sacramento River water around the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta for use in Southern California, the San Francisco Bay area and Central Valley agriculture, you bet it was.

California has never before or since seen a vote like the 1982 referendum on a law passed the previous year by the Legislature to build a concrete canal that would both prevent waste of fresh water and allow precise regulation of flow through the Delta, making sure to keep supplies sufficient to preserve endangered species.

The moment then-Gov. Jerry Brown (today’s state attorney general) signed that law, activists, newspapers - almost every one in Northern California - called the canal plan a “heist” of the north’s river water. They warned that wild rivers like the Smith and the Eel would surely see flows diverted south if the canal were built - despite specific prohibitions in the law. They stopped the law from becoming effective until after a yes-or-no vote the next year.

When that vote came, counties south of the Tehachapi Mountains voted yes by a 65 percent margin. But in the Bay area and other points north of Stockton, the vote was 98 percent against. That’s as close as California has come to a Communist-style plebiscite.

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Even though the southern counties were far more populous than the northern ones, that near-unanimous northern vote was enough to kill the canal. It has been political anathema ever since; no politician with serious ambitions for statewide advancement has dared discuss it seriously.

Until Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger broke the ice earlier this summer. Schwarzenegger may run the state almost exclusively for the benefit of business; he may set records for taking corporate and other special interest donations even when he’s ostensibly not running for anything; he may appoint dozens of industry officials to “regulate” the corporations they came from and to which they will likely return. But give him credit, too. He’s not afraid to step where others dare not tread.

That’s what happened at a Bakersfield “town hall” of business leaders and farmers where he casually opined that “We need more water. We need to build more storage and we have to build conveyance, the canal, all those kinds of things, even though it’s politically risky again.”

Suddenly the genie was out of the bottle for the first time in a quarter century.

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The fact is that he’s right about the need for more water. As it stands, during wet seasons, hundreds of thousands of acre feet of fresh water run uselessly out to sea via the Delta and the San Francisco and San Pablo bays, water that could be saved in reservoirs without the slightest environmental harm to any creature.

How helpful would it have been to have the canal in place at various times since that 1982 vote? The canal, in combination with existing reservoirs, could have prevented water rationing in the San Francisco area during the severe drought of the late 1980s and another in the mid-'90s. Yes, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California ran a pipeline across the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge during the drought of the ‘80s, bringing water to parched Marin County. But that did not stop severe rationing in Santa Clara and Alameda counties.

Chances are the Delta smelt would not be an endangered species today if there were a Peripheral Canal, because canal gates would have opened during dry seasons to keep water levels high and quality pure enough for the needs of that small fish. But the Delta smelt is so bad off today that existing pumps which draw water from the south end of the Delta were shut down at times this spring and summer.

Those shutdowns caused crises in some Bay area water districts supplied almost exclusively from the Delta. Ironically, those in Southern California did fine.

Schwarzenegger essentially advocates reviving the 1981 plan for a canal along the eastern edge of the Delta, combining it with several new reservoirs.

His Web site claims a canal would “help take the burden off our overtaxed Delta which … is facing an ecological crisis.”

On this issue, the governor is correct. It is, as he suggests, about time for action. For the more people pile into California, the more water is needed. Any plan that can provide that while also ensuring lasting water quality in the Delta ought to be embraced.

But Schwarzenegger also is correct about the political risk involved. For environmental purists in the north have already resurrected the same “sky is falling” arguments they made so persuasively against the canal in 1982. If he leads a pro-canal effort, Schwarzenegger will risk their lasting ire.

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Which suggests that maybe he’s telling the truth when he says he plans not to seek further public office after his term ends in 2010, despite persistent speculation about an Independent run for the Senate against three-term Democrat Barbara Boxer.

Elias is author of the current book “The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It.” For questions or information e-mail him at tdelias@aol.com