Water & Drought

Federal water plan to be unveiled

WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration is expected today to unveil an ambitious-sounding package of irrigation deliveries, water transfers, farm-loan guarantees and other programs targeting the parched San Joaquin Valley.

Crafted amid intense political pressure, the package is supposed to alleviate farmers' distress while still protecting fish. It comes as state water managers say this year's Sierra snowpack is on track to reach normal levels after three years of drought.

Some key California lawmakers said late Thursday that they were pleased by the effort, though others still want more detail.

"I'm heartened by this," Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein said Thursday night. "I think we've had good progress."

The comprehensive package is expected to accompany what is normally a routine water allocation announcement, where the federal Bureau of Reclamation declares how much water farms and cities can expect. Last February, the bureau announced farmers south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta would receive nothing. That later increased to 10% of historic deliveries.

This year, lawmakers have been demanding that farmers receive up to 40% of their historic deliveries. If necessary, Feinstein said she would offer an amendment rewriting environmental decisions in order to deliver the increased water.

Feinstein said Thursday that there now appears to be "a good likelihood" that the administration actions being announced today will go a long way toward her goal. The precise details, including the initial allocation percentages, were being tightly held until today.

"I'm very hopeful," added Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer.

Feinstein and Boxer spoke as they departed an extraordinary closed-door session that amounted to a high-level California water summit. Three Cabinet secretaries, both of the state's senators and more than a half-dozen House members convened on Capitol Hill for more than 90 minutes to hash out the state's immediate water woes.

In part, the session held in the underground Capitol Visitors Center permitted Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Council on Environmental Quality chief Nancy Sutley to sketch out their plans for easing California's pain.

In part, the session allowed members to keep the pressure on. Democratic Rep. Jim Costa of Fresno reminded the administration officials of the 40% unemployment in some Valley towns, while Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, cited the predator fish and other nonirrigation causes for the decline of some endangered delta species.

Cardoza said he was taking a "trust but verify" approach toward the administration's work, as officials left out important details in their presentation Thursday. Past Interior Department announcements have frustrated the Valley lawmakers.

"Until we see the press release, I'm going to withhold my judgment," Costa agreed.

Farmers have been leery, with Westlands Water District General Manager Tom Birmingham predicting Wednesday that the initial water allocation will again be zero, just like last year. One possibility is that the Bureau of Reclamation's initial allocation, while low, will be accompanied by expectations that the other actions being taken will bring total water deliveries up toward the 40% mark.

The water allocations, in turn, will be framed with a snowpack that is now on track to be normal this year, according to the California Department of Water Resources.

The northern Sierra snowpack already qualifies as above-average for the entire season, which ends April 1. The northern snowpack supplies Panoche, Westlands Water District and several other west-side water agencies.

In recent years, the Bureau of Reclamation has cut back water pumping to protect dwindling salmon and delta smelt populations at the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Now, federal officials must decide whether the growing snowpack will provide enough water for farms and fish. Usually, the bureau announces a conservative allotment in case the weather turns dry in late winter and early spring.

State officials say reservoir levels still must rise to recover from the drought. Shasta Reservoir on the federal project has risen to 98% of average for this time of year, but massive Oroville Reservoir on the State Water Project remains only 54% of average.

"The precipitation has been going fairly well," said Frank Gehrke, California's snow survey chief. "But we have a large deficit in terms of reservoir storage. We need more than an average snowpack to eliminate the deficit."

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