Bill to stop river project draws powerful foes

June 2, 2011 

WASHINGTON – California officials and the Obama administration on Thursday strongly objected to a politically divisive bill that blocks San Joaquin River restoration efforts, casting the bill's long-term prospects into doubt.

Citing "very serious problems" with the bill authored by Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, administration officials warned against breaking apart the river restoration settlement that in 2006 ended an 18-year-long lawsuit pitting farmers against environmentalists.

"The bill would not only undo the very valuable restoration work committed to by all the settling parties, but would also ... pave the way for many more years of costly court battles," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar warned a House panel.

California Natural Resources Secretary John Laird echoed that warning, saying the bill would "almost certainly send the controversy back to court, where the consequences of litigation would be unknown."

As a statement, though, the San Joaquin Valley Water Reliability Act could succeed even if it dies in the Senate. Critics fear it might also propel over the finish line other California water provisions.

Republicans specifically cast the legislation in partisan terms, repeatedly contrasting the GOP's farmer-friendly efforts with what Nunes described as "four years of neglect by the [previous] Democratic majority." The bill allows lawmakers to articulate a position, with various Republicans Thursday denouncing "uncompromising environmental groups" and "left-wing ideology."

"California's San Joaquin Valley is ground ero for what's gone wrong with federal water policy," declared Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Elk Grove, the chairman of the House water and power subcommittee.

Though the hearing was the first on Capitol Hill to consider the water legislation, lawmakers and witnesses spent at least as much time revisiting old feuds as on discussing the bill's details. At one point, Westlands Water District general manager Tom Birmingham and Rep. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove, clashed over water negotiations they had back in 1997.

This year's 38-page bill would stop the ambitious program that currently aims to return salmon to the San Joaquin River by Dec. 31, 2012. The bill also would lengthen irrigation contracts, curtail environmental protections in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and provide farmers more water. "The pumps have to run," Nunes said, and "the San Joaquin River boondoggle has to end."

Working on a separate front, Nunes and his allies succeeded Thursday in stripping $66 million in San Joaquin River restoration funds from a fiscal 2012 spending bill.

The Friant Water Users Authority and the Natural Resources Defense Council signed the river settlement in 2006. Without the agreement, negotiators reckoned that a federal judge would control the water decisions.

Barry Nelson of the Natural Resources Defense Council and Cynthia Koehler of the Environmental Defense Fund both cautioned Thursday that cracking the river settlement could undermine confidence in other water negotiations, particularly those underway through the Bay Delta Conservation Plan.

Neither Friant nor the NRDC were invited to testify Thursday. Instead, the subcommittee summoned farmer Kole Upton, a former Friant chairman who now opposes the river restoration plan. "The salmon restoration is behind schedule and the question should be asked whether this effort warrants the expenditure of so much public money," Upton said.

Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Michael Connor acknowledged the Dec. 31, 2012, deadline for returning salmon to the river may slip, suggesting that "we are interested in looking at the schedule" for possible revisions.

The water bill is almost certain to pass the Republican-controlled House, possibly this summer.

Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, said Thursday he will support the bill so that further negotiations can ensue.

Neither of California's two Democratic senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, support the current bill. This complicates the bill's final passage, though Nunes says he's working with senators from other states.

The reporter can be reached at mdoyle@mcclatchydc.com or (202) 383-0006.

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