Politics & Government

Madera Co. water bank OK'd by House

WASHINGTON -- An ambitious Madera County water bank won House approval Monday as lawmakers sought to put the underground water storage plan on an unusual fast track.

Sidestepping the normal rules for federal water projects, the House declared the Madera Ranch proposal to be "feasible" and authorized its construction.

It is the first time the House has authorized money for the project. The $90 million project will store water in underground aquifers near Highway 99 and release it during dry years.

"Court decisions and drought have led to an increasing demand on water supply in California," Rep. George Radanovich, R-Mariposa, asserted in a prepared statement. "The looming water crisis in California demands more feasible water supply projects, such as this water bank."

The House approved the Madera Ranch bill by voice vote after three minutes of debate, while Radanovich -- the bill's author -- still was en route back to Washington from his district. An identical bill introduced in the Senate by Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein now awaits final action. A vote has not been scheduled.

The legislation authorizes up to $22.5 million in federal funds for Madera Ranch. State and local agencies will provide the rest of the money, with the Madera Irrigation District having already spent $37 million to buy nearly 14,000 acres southwest of Madera.

The irrigation district plans to let up to 250,000 acre-feet of water from the San Joaquin and Fresno rivers seep into the underground storage banks. This amounts to roughly half the capacity of Millerton Lake.

"This could prove critical to meeting water supply needs," said Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas. Gohmert was representing Republicans on the House floor during the perfunctory debate.

Madera Irrigation District General Manager Alan Turner was pleased with Monday's vote and said it signals a commitment in Washington, D.C., to helping solve California's water issues.

Turner said the irrigation district expects federal environmental clearance to start filling the underground basin by this time next year or "when the water becomes available."

Radanovich stressed that the project has been extensively studied over the past decade. The House bill itself, in a preemptive strike, specifically cites 18 prior studies relating to Madera Ranch and prohibits the Bureau of Reclamation from conducting any more.

Still, the aggressive approach goes beyond what Madera Ranch supporters had previously sought. It bypasses standard federal government practice, and it comes as competition increases for a share of San Joaquin River water.

The Bureau of Reclamation or the Army Corps of Engineers typically completes a feasibility study before Congress votes on authorizing a project. The studies include public meetings, workshops and voluminous documentation, and usually take about three years to complete.

"Historically, we don't construct something until we do a feasibility study," Sacramento-based Bureau spokesman Jeff McCracken noted Monday. "It's kind of like buying a car; you need to know whether you should buy a Cadillac, or a Prius."

The previous Madera Ranch studies include those conducted while the water bank project was being proposed by a spinoff from the now-bankrupt Enron energy company. However, the previous work did not include a formal Bureau feasibility study.

The Bureau opposed Radanovich's earlier bill to order a feasibility study. It has taken no formal position on the rewritten bill.

Gohmert acknowledged Monday that the direct project authorization without a feasibility study was a "rarely used" tool, but he said it was appropriate so "the bureaucracy" wouldn't slow things down.

As part of a lawsuit settlement, Radanovich is simultaneously pushing legislation that would take San Joaquin River water away from irrigation districts and use it for restoring the river's historic salmon population. It is not clear how this potential reduction in irrigation district deliveries might affect the Madera Irrigation District's plans for filling the underground water bank.

In 2006, the House approved Radanovich's bill that would have authorized a formal feasibility study of the Madera Ranch project.

Congress never completed work on the 2006 bill.

Since then, Radanovich modified the legislation to drop the feasibility study altogether and go straight to project authorization.

An initial appraisal study had concluded that the Madera Ranch project had potential and deserved further assessment, and the two House members who spoke on the bill Monday both insisted the revised measure was "noncontroversial."