As 2002 was drawing to a close, forecasters with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that warming of the western Pacific heralded the arrival of an El Niño weather pattern. The influence of this periodically recurring phenomenon usually means heavier-than-usual winter rains for California. But even if California gets more than its average precipitation this winter, water scarcity — or at least the possibility of it — will dominate the state's environmental agenda during the next 12 months. Also high on California's agenda this year will be renewed conflict in the state's forests, and a debate over protections for wilderness and rivers. California's policymakers always obsess about water. It is the inevitable consequence of the state's mismatch between demography and geography. Still, several events coincide this year to give water policy even more prominence than usual. In the immediate future, water planners have to confront fallout from the December debacle in El Centro, where three members of the Imperial Irrigation District (IID) board left 17 million Southern Californians in limbo by rejecting a tortuously negotiated deal — endorsed by many of the valley's farmers — to sell water to the San Diego County Water Authority (SDCWA) and thereby enable the Metropolitan Water District (MWD) to continue receiving temporarily surplus Colorado River flows (see Page 1, CP&DR Environment Watch, December 2002). Whether or not the IID-SDCWA deal goes through, and regardless of whether the federal government makes good on its threat to turn off the surplus tap, the high-stakes game of chicken between the IID board and the urban water agencies that covet IID's water foreshadows a troubled future. Similar conflicts will likely spread statewide in coming months as growing cities and suburbs try to slake their thirst by purchasing agricultural water in the problem-plagued transfer market. Even as MWD and SDCWA were getting stung by the IID, for example, the Met was hedging its bets by negotiating a contract to buy 205,000 acre-feet of water from Sacramento Valley irrigation districts. Several districts appear interested, and one — the Western Canal District of Richvale, which serves mainly rice growers in Butte County — has tentatively agreed to sell 26,060 acre-feet. That deal could be finalized this month, but there are rumblings of discontent similar to those that proved decisive in Imperial County and which will inevitably accompany any effort to move water from farms to cities. Agriculture-dependent communities fear that selling water means fallowing land, and reduced farm activity means less money flowing into the local economy in the form of wages and expenditures on equipment, fertilizer, pesticides and other products. The focus on water during the coming year is likely to intensify for two other reasons. One is the demise in the waning days of the 2002 congressional session of a Cal-Fed re-authorization and funding bill (the Senate approved the bill, but the House did not). The Cal-Fed failure leaves uncertain the federal commitment to the mammoth multi-agency effort, which is intended to revitalize the ailing San Francisco Bay-Delta complex — source of two-thirds of California's water supply. That issue will be back on the table this year. The other event likely to focus attention on water is the scheduled 2003 release of the latest update to the California Water Plan, the state's comprehensive forecast of supply and demand. Revised every five years and intended to serve as a framework for decisions by the state's water managers, the plan this time will include a major component focusing on the effect of global climate change on California's water supply. That evaluation is expected to offer little comfort to planners already unnerved by population projections, urban-rural squabbling and the infirmities of the state's aging plumbing system. A preview of sorts was provided in late November by a team of researchers from the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, the University of Washington, the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Geological Survey. Their modeling, which used temperature data to predict likely changes in precipitation and runoff patterns for three major river systems in the West — the Columbia, Colorado and Sacramento — suggests a dramatic reduction in winter snowpack and an increase in winter rainfall. That will mean less water flowing into reservoirs from snowmelt during dry months, but more pouring in during flood-prone winter months when there is no room to store it. Rivers are the centerpiece of another issue affecting California during the next 12 months, as U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer seeks support for a major wilderness bill. Her California Wild Heritage Act, S. 2535, would designate 43 new federal wilderness areas in the state totaling 1.2 million acres, add 1.2 million acres to existing wilderness areas, bring another 473 miles of streams under protection as "wild and scenic" rivers, and establish several other conservation and study areas. Companion measures were introduced in the House by Reps. Hilda Solis (D-El Monte) and Mike Thompson (D-Napa). Only one piece of legislation in state history has encompassed more wilderness acreage: Sen. Dianne Feinstein's California Desert Protection Act of 1994. When the wild and scenic rivers component is added, Boxer's bill ranks as the most far-reaching California wilderness bill ever introduced. Although the state Legislature and numerous environmental organizations have endorsed the bill, many rural counties oppose it. More importantly, Boxer's proposal will face scrutiny from a Congress in which key committees are dominated by Republican lawmakers unsympathetic to environmental legislation; even if the bill should leap that substantial hurdle it would land on the desk of a president who is unlikely to sign it. California also is likely to be among the first states to feel the effects of the Bush administration's move to speed "thinning" operations in national forests to reduce wildfire danger. Announced in early December — just two weeks after the administration proposed new regulations allowing individual forest managers to adopt long-term management plans without subjecting them to lengthy public environmental reviews — the proposed thinning regulation would exempt brush and tree removal from environmental review and challenge if undertaken to reduce fire danger. Both proposed sets of forest regulations could be in place by summer. The National Forest Service has identified 10 sites nationwide for pilot thinning projects, two of which are in California's Mendocino and El Dorado national forests. The proposals have been denounced by environmental groups, which say the Bush Administration is using an exaggerated threat of fire as an excuse to circumvent the National Environmental Policy Act and open national forests to commercial logging without proper evaluation or public input.