Politics & Government

Nunes bill targets 28 projects tied to San Joaquin River restoration

WASHINGTON -- Two billion dollars worth of water projects meant to ease the burden of restoring the San Joaquin River would be studied under a bill that Rep. Devin Nunes plans to introduce today.

The legislation would authorize feasibility studies of 28 projects, large and small. They range from improving the Friant-Kern Canal to building a new, $359 million Trans Valley Canal in Tulare and Kings counties.

The new bill also accelerates the already complicated maneuvering over the plan to restore the San Joaquin River.

The restoration plan would end a 1988 lawsuit filed by environmentalists unhappy over how Friant Dam's construction dried up the San Joaquin River. The plan requires hundreds of millions of dollars worth of river channel improvements, leading to reintroduction of salmon by 2013.

Restoring the river would cut Friant-area irrigation deliveries by an average of 19%. The 28 projects that Nunes wants studied have been identified as possible ways to help farmers retain water.

"This is something that needs to be done," Nunes, R-Visalia, said Wednesday. "It would put in concrete some ways to get some water back."

Nunes has been battling the author of a $500 million bill to implement the restoration settlement, Rep. George Radanovich, R-Mariposa. Nunes wrote his new bill -- and revised it significantly late Wednesday afternoon -- without consulting Radanovich.

"It would be very helpful for us to have conversations with Devin and his office," said Radanovich's press secretary, Spencer Pederson.

Nunes originally wrote his bill to require that the 28 feasibility studies be completed before any of the San Joaquin River's "test flows" begin. Although Nunes denied his bill was meant as a "poison pill," the bill's real-world effect appeared likely to complicate and postpone the start of river restoration. Increased river flows are scheduled for 2009, under the restoration plan.

"I'm not sure those feasibility studies could be completed by 2009," said Ron Jacobsma, general manager of the Friant Water Users Authority.

Moreover, in a controversial move called "pre-authorization" that environmentalists traditionally oppose, the Nunes bill declares that any water project deemed feasible could be constructed without further congressional approval. Usually, feasibility studies must be followed by a separate authorization bill.

But after being questioned about his legislation late Wednesday afternoon, Nunes indicated he would revise it. The new version drops the requirement that the feasibility studies be completed before restoration work begins. The pre-authorization language remains, however.

"I'm not against the settlement, but I am for making sure we're watching out for everyone," Nunes said.

Politically, Nunes' effort still faces long odds. He is introducing it without any co-sponsors. The river restoration bill, meanwhile, has the support of California's two senators, most other San Joaquin Valley lawmakers and members of the House Democratic leadership team.

"Our board is still fully supportive of the settlement," Jacobsma said.

Symbolically, though, the latest bill underscores the intense public and private maneuvering around the ambitious restoration plan. San Joaquin Valley water districts and the region's farm bureaus are starting to raise concerns.

"It's not as positive as it once was," Joel Nelsen, executive director of the Exeter-based California Citrus Mutual, said of the current mood. "There's a lot of uncertainty in my industry, and that has created a lot of questions."

House budget rules require that about half of the restoration bill's $500 million cost be offset. Bill supporters are still struggling to find the money they need. Radanovich said he believes negotiators are getting closer to identifying the funding source.

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