Feinstein may drop Valley water plan

She responds to 11 upset West Coast Dems.

February 18, 2010 

WASHINGTON -- Facing objections from a dozen West Coast lawmakers, Sen. Dianne Feinstein said Thursday that she might drop her controversial bid to direct more water to San Joaquin Valley farmers if the Interior Department takes action on its own.

"If there can be some administrative action taken to take advantage of the recent bountiful rain and snow and provide reasonable water supplies this year, the legislation may not be necessary," she wrote to one of the lawmakers late Thursday, adding that she will "remain open to ideas" offered by other Democrats.

Feinstein's suggestion could disappoint water-starved west-side Valley farmers, who were hoping her proposed legislation would override federal water delivery decisions.

But Westlands Water District spokeswoman Sarah Woolf remained optimistic that Feinstein will keep pressing for more farm water. "I don't take that to mean her efforts won't continue. I don't think she's backing away," Woolf said.

Citing potential dangers both to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and West Coast salmon industry, 11 lawmakers from California, Oregon and Washington on Thursday wrote Feinstein, bluntly urging her to withdraw her controversial water proposal.

"I think it's a massive miscalculation," Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, said in an interview. "It's destructive, both environmentally and politically."

The objections raised by Miller and his House of Representatives colleagues mirror warnings by California salmon fishermen and environmentalists. The congressional objections carry special weight, though, because they hinder Feinstein's ability to accomplish her goal.

The escalating fight pits region against region, and some of California's most influential politicians against one another. It's already splitting fragile alliances among California water users, who in recent years have inched toward comity.

On Thursday, Fresno-area Rep. Jim Costa -- a supporter of Feinstein's water legislation -- retorted that other Democrats are being "entirely insensitive and crass" in their attitude toward San Joaquin Valley residents. The Democrats opposed to delivering more irrigation water want the Valley to "dry up and blow away," Costa added.

With the support of farm organizations like Westlands, Feinstein wants Congress to partially override two "biological opinions" that protect endangered species and govern water deliveries.

Feinstein's proposal would boost irrigation deliveries to west-side farms to 40% or so of the farms' contractual allocation. Last year, drought and environmental restrictions meant some farmers received only 10% of their allocations.

Feinstein has cited the San Joaquin Valley's "unprecedented economic crisis" and her desire to "simply allow San Joaquin Valley farmers to plant, hire and harvest."

It's unclear whether Feinstein fully anticipated the uproar that's resulted.

Feinstein's move "seriously jeopardizes" existing water coalitions and relations among colleagues, Rep. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Creek, said Thursday.

Miller said Congress should await a National Research Council study on the biological opinions, due in March. The scientific review was originally undertaken at Feinstein's behest.

The congressional lineup opposing Feinstein is hefty enough to call into question Feinstein's ability to overcome it.

Miller is one of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's key lieutenants, and a former chairman of what's now called the House Natural Resources Committee. Another lawmaker unhappy with Feinstein, Rep. Norm Dicks of Washington, chairs the powerful House subcommittee responsible for the Interior Department's budget.

The chairwoman of the House water and power subcommittee, Rep. Grace Napolitano, D-Santa Fe Springs, has previously objected to Feinstein's efforts.

On past water issues, Feinstein has traditionally combined the role of facilitator and enforcer: getting all parties into a room and making sure they cut a deal. With the new water amendment, she explicitly allied herself with farm interests.

"Your draft amendment is inconsistent with your record of pursuing compromise solutions to environmental conflicts," the new letter to Feinstein states.

The 11 lawmakers further warn Feinstein that her plan would "drive California's and much of Oregon's salmon to extinction" and threaten "thousands of jobs."

Feinstein's draft water amendment includes an unspecified amount of funding to assist salmon fishermen. She has suggested adding the water delivery amendment to a Senate jobs bill, which could be considered as early as next week.

Bee staff writer Paula Lloyd contributed to this report. The reporter can be reached at mdoyle@mcclatchydc.com or (202) 383-0006.

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