China plans a massive engineering project to divert some of the waters of the Yangtze River north in an attempt to increase the production of wheat, cotton and corn in the Yellow Plains around Peking.

"This project is so big it will take the Chinese at least a decade to accomplish it," Dr. Clifton Parnell of the University of Georgia told the 14th national meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

"They're talking about a project that would be like channeling the waters of the Columbia into the valleys of California. They're talking about a project that would be like what we've been doing for years in the Southwest with the waters of the Colorado River," Parnell said.

He said that the project was sketched out for American scientists by Huang Ping-wei, director of the Institute of Geography in Peking. Parnell said full details have not been worked out but they involve moving water out of the Yangtze alongside of or through China's Grand Canal, which has carried boat traffic since the 6th century.

The Chinese want to divert the Yangtze water north, Parnell said, because the Yellow Plains, which surround Peking for hundreds of miles, are now short of water. This is a result of increasing erosion along the banks of the Yellow River, filling the riverbed with sediment that has lowered the water level.

"The Yangtze is one of the largest rivers in the world. It provides the southern region of China with a water surplus," Parnell said."The Yellow Plains ae now running a water deficit and badly need new irrigation if they are to meet Chinese goals of higher crop production."

He said the Chinese are still working out details of the project, which could involve constructing aqueducts and pipelines to carry Yangtze water north or might even involve a widening and deepening of the Grand Canal so that it could carry the river water.

The Grand Canal extends north and south for more than 600 miles before reaching the vicinity of Peking, then continues another 200 miles before it ends.

At the spot where it intersects the Grand Canal, the Yangtze River is almost two miles wide, Parnell said, meaning the diversion would involve massive engineering works no matter how it is done. He said he had no idea how much water China plans to divert out of the Yangtze.

"They're quite serious about this," Parnell said. "They need to increase crop production in the Yellow Plains, no matter what it takes."

At a press conference to discuss the state of Chinese technology, Dr. Baruch Boxer of Rutgers University said the Japanese have begun construction of a $2.3 billion steel complex 20 miles south of Shanghai along the Wusung River that promises to be one of the largest steel mills in Asia.

"People in China are concerned about the pollution effects of the steel mills on the river, which is an estuary of the Yangtze," said Boxer, who describes himself as an environmental scientist. "The Japancese are not noted for worrying about water pollution unless there are strong political considerations so this project is one that bears watching by the Chinese."

Dr. Leo Goldberg of Arizona's Kitt Peak National Observatory said that as part of China's "Long March" toward modernization it is building a new observatory outside of Yunan in sourth China and is enlarging its major observatory near Shanghai. The Chinese are also constructing a twometer (80-inch) telescope, which will be double the diameter of the largest optical telescope in operation today in China.

China has a long tradition in astronomy that dates back to the Middle Ages," Goldberg said, "but they have a long way to go to catch up with the rest of the world."