Politics & Government

River plan afloat, barely

WASHINGTON -- The road to San Joaquin River restoration remains rocky a year after farmers and environmentalists seemingly settled their differences.

Congress is still hung up on legislation returning water and salmon to the river. Some crucial questions remain unanswered. Recent court decisions also complicate the picture, and some influential farmers are harboring second thoughts.

The problems don't mean the river deal announced Sept. 13, 2006, is dead. Far from it. But they do show how enduring challenges can outlast the hopeful glow of early expectations.

"We've got some deep concerns," Madera County grape and almond farmer Denis Prosperi said. "We don't think the settlement is going in the right direction."

The San Joaquin River deal would resolve a 1988 lawsuit filed by environmentalists who said Friant Dam's irrigation diversions fatally depleted the river.

The plans include rebuilding the river channel, releasing more water from the dam and reintroducing salmon by 2012.

The 22 water districts from Chowchilla to Kern County that make up the Friant Water Users Authority accepted the settlement even though it will reduce their irrigation supplies. They fear losing more water if a federal judge makes the decisions.

Democratic U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. George Radanovich, R-Mariposa, first introduced a $500 million San Joaquin River restoration bill in December. They reintroduced the bill in January.

"Hopefully, we'll do it this year," Radanovich said.

None of the Friant water boards has plans to reconsider its endorsement of the settlement.

The settlement's two top negotiators, Natural Resources Defense Council senior attorney Hal Candee and Friant attorney Dan Dooley, appeared together congenially Friday at a Stanford University conference, and Dooley reiterated Friant's backing for the river settlement in a letter to Feinstein.

So did Ron Jacobsma, general manager of the Friant Water Users Authority, in an interview Friday: "As time passes, people get more and more anxious on both sides of the equation," he said, but "the board of directors is still fully supportive of the settlement, and we're going to press ahead."

Settlement supporters acknowledge that delay is their enemy, because it creates a vacuum filled with doubt. The carefully negotiated settlement can only be changed if everyone agrees.

In late August, Prosperi, Friant Water Users Authority Chairman Kole Upton and more than a dozen others privately aired their growing concerns to Radanovich. Farmers and water district managers voiced fears they might lose more water than planned.

"The farmers have essentially woken up to the fact that none of their water is coming back," said Rep. Devin Nunes, a Visalia Republican who is maneuvering against the river settlement.

In particular, skeptics raised alarms about recent environmentalist suggestions that Friant-area farmers could sacrifice more water in a plan to protect the threatened delta smelt.

The smelt live in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and are protected under the Endangered Species Act. Technically, they are not part of the San Joaquin River restoration efforts. Practically speaking, though, they are connected.

On Aug. 31, U.S. District Judge Oliver Wanger in Fresno ordered that less water be pumped from the delta in order to protect the smelt. This could cut water deliveries south of the delta by a third, by some estimates. The farmers hurt directly are on the San Joaquin Valley's west side, while east-side farmers are served by Friant Dam.

But in describing the smelt protection plan, a Natural Resources Defense Council scientist testified that Friant-area farmers are a "potential source of water transfers" to the west side. Translated, this means east-side farmers might be asked to give up water for the west-side farmers, who gave up water for the smelt. East-side farmers considered the idea a betrayal.

"You've had this blood oath, that we're all going to work together, and now you've got one side trying to break the deal," Prosperi said.

Upton added in a recent letter to Feinstein that the environmentalist position on the smelt was "totally inconsistent" with an earlier agreement to help Friant farmers retain as much water as possible. California Citrus Mutual, representing many Friant growers, cited similar worries in a member newsletter.

Candee said Friday that the environmental group's smelt statements were "being completely misconstrued," and he stressed that NRDC "continues to fully support" efforts to preserve Friant's irrigation supplies as much as possible.

As the river restoration alliance tries to stick together, it must also figure out how to pay for the work.

House budget rules require that revenue increases or budget cuts offset roughly half the river bill's $500 million price tag.

Officials still don't know where the offsets will come from.

Jacobsma said that "we're looking at some concepts," which could include speeding up Friant's payments to the government for dam construction. Jacobsma added that a proposal might be ready "in the next couple of weeks" for submission to Congress.

"These aren't easy hurdles," Jacobsma said, "but we seem to be making progress."