River restoration meets resistance in Congress

July 14, 2011 

WASHINGTON -- Ambitious San Joaquin River restoration plans are facing delays on the ground and renewed resistance on Capitol Hill.

Already lagging, the river restoration efforts would stop altogether under legislation set for House approval today.

Underscoring their zeal, lawmakers on Thursday added a provision that blocks federal officials from putting salmon into the river.

"This is a program that has failed to show any positive results and has done more harm than good," Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Atwater, said Thursday of river restoration efforts.

As part of a one-two punch, Denham won approval for an amendment that specifically blocks officials from returning salmon into the once-teeming San Joaquin River.

Denham's amendment augments what's already in the $30 billion energy and water fiscal 2012 spending bill, which is being debated this week by the House. The underlying bill's language, inserted at the behest of Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, eliminates all funding for San Joaquin River restoration next year.

The restoration plan, and accompanying legislation, settled a lawsuit filed by environmentalists in 1988. The plan calls for salmon to be reintroduced into the San Joaquin River below Friant Dam by Dec. 31, 2012.

But some specific projects have taken longer to complete than expected, and officials are quietly discussing extending their timetable.

Already, the deadline for a public comment period on an approximately 8,000-page environmental study has been extended from June until September.

"We know the time frames in the settlement are aggressive, and they're slipping," said Ron Jacobsma, general manager of the Friant Water Users Authority, which represents regional farmers.

"We're trying to come up with a construction schedule."

River restoration skeptics cite the likely delays as reason to withhold funding. Delays also could complicate efforts to obtain a necessary permit, scheduled for April, from the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Farmers, environmentalists and federal officials are meeting this summer to evaluate the potential projects.

Notably, they must determine whether the river's route on the Valley's west side will follow the old river channel or a big flood bypass.

Negotiators also must decide on a bypass channel around the Mendota Dam to clear the way for migrating salmon.

Other projects will include making the river channel wider and deeper in some places.

The energy and water bill would block all of this work.

Denham's amendment would theoretically allow some studies and river work to be funded if it was unrelated to returning salmon.

Practically speaking, the various San Joaquin River provisions face an uncertain future, as does the overall energy and water bill itself.

"This will simply land this case back into court," predicted Rep. Peter Visclosky, D-Ind., adding that cutting off the river restoration "will lead to another 18 years of litigation."

House Democrats, though, did not vigorously fight Denham's San Joaquin River amendment, or even call for a recorded vote Thursday. They believe it will eventually fade away.

Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer are both vocal supporters of the San Joaquin River restoration efforts. Feinstein, in particular, has invested a lot of time and political capital in the river's future, and shows little interest in backing off.

"It's not going to happen," Rep. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove, said of efforts to stop river restoration. "There are some rational folks over in the Senate."

Still other lawmakers doubt Congress will even finish the individual appropriations bills, including the energy and water part. Instead, a politically stymied Congress might resort to a catch-all spending package that simply retains ongoing funding levels.

The reporters can be reached at mdoyle@mcclatchydc.com and mgrossi@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6330.

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