SAN FRANCISCO -- California's director of water resources last week expressed pessimism about the prospects for building dam and conveyance projects to meet the state's huge water needs.

About 1,200 dams exist in California, and "I'll be surprised if another 20 get built in the next 100 years," David N. Kennedy, director of California's Department of Water Resources, said Thursday.

Mr. Kennedy spoke at a luncheon Thursday sponsored jointly by the San Francisco Municipal Forum and the Association of California Water Agencies.

Numerous federal and state laws -- particularly those focusing on environmental concerns -- have hampered efforts to build water storage facilities, Mr. Kennedy said. In some regards, however, Mr. Kennedy noted that environmental impact reports "are the simplest part of our life."

In the past 20 years, "multiple claimants with various legal standing" have not only complicated the water situation but also "thrown into question what is a secure and reliable water supply," he said.

Much of the pressure is coming from the federal government in such areas as endangered species laws, he said. For example, a potential ruling to protect a small fish called the delta smelt could throw two-thirds of the state's water supply into "a new status" that could force changes in the way water is managed, Mr. Kennedy explained.

He cautioned that "there has to be some balance" among the competing interests, adding that it is probably "going to take everybody being in trouble" for Congress and the state Legislature to develop workable long-term water policies.

Water has always been a critical issue in California, but it moved to a front burner in recent months after the state's five-year drought prompted serious cutbacks and price increases.

Heavier-than-normal rainfall in March helped stave off some of the more severe measures. But without decent rainfall in the autumn, storage reservoirs will be at very low levels by November, and water concerns will be "back on the front pages," Mr. Kennedy said.

He stressed that the outlook "is not all bad" and discussed some of the political solutions in process.

He noted, for example, that many observers consider the state's water bank experiment a success so far. Under the water bank concept, the state serves as a middleman in matching prospective water sellers with buyers. The concept generally entails having individual farmers or agricultural districts sell water for use in urban areas.

Mr. Kennedy also said "it's a hopeful sign" that the three major water interest groups -- urban users, agricultural users, and environmental groups -- have been trying to lay the groundwork for some type of political settlement. "These three groups have to reach an accommodation," Mr. Kennedy said.

During a question-and-anser session, Mr. kennedy was asked to clarify what he meant by the "Northern California situation" that also complicates water management in the state.

Mr. Kennedy noted that there is "tremendous opposition" in Northern California, where much of the supply exists, to sending water to Southern California.

He cited the overwhelming majority of Northern Californians who voted against the Peripheral Canal project a decade ago. "That's a fact of life" and may be the limitation that forces Southern California to rely on development of alternate water sources, Mr. Kennedy said.

The Peripheral Canal was a proposed channel around the edge of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta that would have enhanced the efficiency of water transfers from one of California's most important drinking water supplies.

But Southern California also faces challenges in tapping sources, such as the Colorado River, where other states have a say Southern California "is not greatly beloved anywhere" when it comes to water negotiations, said Mr. Kennedy, who served as assistant general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California until appointment to his current post in 1983.

Plants that desalt ocean water are one potential solution, Mr. Kennedy said, but he noted that expense will be "the basic problem" limiting the attractiveness of the technology. Desalted water costs at least five times as much as most of Southern California's existing water supply.

In response to a question about a proposed pipeline to bring water from Alaska, Mr. Kennedy said "I can't find any water supply people who think" the project has merit, partly because it would be too expensive.

Another luncheon participant asked about the status of the proposed Auburn Dam near Sacramento. Mr. Kennedy said the dam seems most viable now as a flood control project, rather than as a multiple-purpose project to store water and generate power.

The environmental community has said it will make the water storage project -- which would flood an upstream canyon -- a national issue, and Mr. Kennedy said "my own sense is that there is not enough support to override" such objections.

One problem with building new dams is that there simply are not as many sites available, Mr. Kennedy noted, especially because some of the more attractive sites also are off-limits because of laws protecting wild and scenic rivers.

But "one thing that has struck me is that people don't like water shortages," Mr. Kennedy said, and he hoped that would aid efforts to develop new supplies.

Some headway has been made, he said, including potential construction of the Los Banos Grandes reservoir in Central California and possible creation of a below-ground water reservoir in Kern County that would bank Northern California water during wet months.

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