After Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency over California's historic, three-year drought conditions, he hinted during a stop in the Los Angeles area overnight that water could be transferred from Southern California to the northern half of the state, where conditions are dire.

The governor's office today tried to backpedal on those comments, however, attempting to avoid the kind of “water war” jargon that has split the state's northern and southern halves in the past.

Brown spokesman Evan Westrup told us today that … 
… “the governor's comments were mischaracterized.”

It was CBS Los Angeles political reporter Dave Bryan who asked the governor, following an event in Beverly Hills last night, this:

Are we at the point now where it's time to say water will be shifted from some areas of Southern California, where it's more plentiful, to areas in other parts of the state where they're running out of water, and will the president and the feds help?

Brown responded:

Yes, the President called me today. He offered to do whatever he can do now. Obviously he can't make it rain. But there are some parts of California that are more privileged from the point of view of water availability than others. So we have systems we can transfer it. But there are a lot of water rights. A lot of rules. So we got to cut through that and make sure those who need it most get the water to the extent that we have it available.

That doesn't sound like to us like the governor was mincing words. He seemed to be clearly considering the possibility of taking from the water rich and giving to the water poor.

We were told that the CBS Los Angeles website originally spun the comments as the beginning of a possible north-south “water war” – only to replace the earlier story with a less-divisive version.

Brown's office pointed us to comments the governor made in L.A. this morning at an event that featured Metropolitan Water District General Manager Jeffrey Kightlinger.

He didn't exactly backtrack. Rather, the governor said:

Here at the MWD you've been doing excellent conservation. You've invested in resources and storage in ways that other parts of the state have not. … 

Going forward we're all going to have to think very carefully about resources. … I'm going to do my best to unite this state, and water is something we share.

Kightlinger was kind enough during the event to mention the last time SoCal water was used in Northern California, during the drought of 1977, when, he said, “They jury-rigged a pipe to Marin County … We were able to help the state in 1977.”

Why all the pussy-footing from the governor's office about helping out our friends to the north? Water distribution is what keeps the California economy, from the desert suburbs to the Central Valley's agricultural engine – America's salad bowl – humming.

Messing with our water is a political third rail.

One state official told us, “It's not the governor who would be crazy enough politically to make that announcement. The political blowback would be massive.”

Despite the subsequent backpedaling from the governor's office, Pomona College environmental analysis professor Char Miller thinks Brown was putting “Southern California on notice” that it's time to share our water.

Though that's not without precedent, it is unusual. Water flows from north to south, and Southern California gets its H20 from the California Aqueduct that runs from Kern County, from the Owens Valley and from the Colorado River.

Northern California and the Central Valley are fed in part by the mighty Sierra Nevada mountains, which have seen record-low precipitation. A report just sent to us today from the California Department of Water Resources shows a low-low 1.1 inches of Northern Sierra snow pack.

Credit: Michael Locke/LA Weekly Flickr pool.

Credit: Michael Locke/LA Weekly Flickr pool.

In the meantime, anticipating cyclical drought conditions, Southern California water agencies, including the MWD, have done a good job of saving for a non-rainy day. (We reached out to the city of L.A.'s Department of Water and Power but had yet to hear back.)

“Water managers in the Southland read the tea leaves properly,” Miller of Pomona College told us. “They understand you have to bank water. Thats what they've been doing. The reservoirs here are relatively full. People here have been taking climate change seriously.”

But it's the thirsty farm industry of the Central Valley, which the professor says uses a whopping 80 percent of the state's water, that would be the beneficiary of any water redistribution. “The real water buffalo in the room is Big Agriculture,” he says.

Would transferring water from south to north be technically feasible? “I don't know that that could be done,” says Nancy Vogel of the Department of Water Resources.

Professor Miller thinks we would more likely see “the transfer of water to the south slowed down if not cut.”

David Zilberman, a UC Berkeley professor of agricultural resources economics, agreed:

Generally you cut shipments. I suspect that that's what Brown will do. It's what happened in 1991.

It seems that President Obama is poised to help. His comments to the governor yesterday include an offering of federal might:

The Bureau of Reclamation is working closely with federal and California state authorities to facilitate water transfers and provide operational flexibility … 

[Added at 4:58 p.m.]: We just got off the phone with MWD general manager Jeffrey Kightlinger, who sounded to us like a man ready to help out California's drier points north.

He said “infrastructure is a challenge” when it comes to any possibility of shipping water north. And, Kightlinger said, “Right now there's nothing to take.”

But he added that the MWD would cooperate if it becomes necessary:

I have told folks looking for help that my first obligation is to my ratepayers. No one is saying we're going to turn a cold shoulder on the rest of the state. I don't think it's so much water will be taken. Parties will find a way to work together. We did it in 1977 and in 2009 and we'll do it again. You do what you can to help.

[Added at 5:06 p.m.]: Westrup of the governor's office just added this to the conversation:

Water transfers from one part of the state to another are common, and they become critical in dry years. In fact back in May 2013, Governor Brown issued an Executive Order to direct state water officials to expedite the review and processing of voluntary transfers of water and water rights ahead of the drought we're now in.

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