San Joaquin River plan part of massive public lands bill

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 7, 2008 

WASHINGTON — Ambitious San Joaquin River restoration plans are now part of a huge public lands bill whose national scope brings both risk and reward.

Senators returning to work next week will confront a 760-page package that wraps together more than 90 separate bills. One would restore water flows and salmon runs in the San Joaquin River below Friant Dam.

The river bill is big just by itself, with an estimated price tag of several hundred million dollars. The rest of the legislation is even bigger, covering everything from a new West Virginia wilderness to a proposed William Jefferson Clinton Birthplace Home National Historic Site in Hope, Ark.

"A large package like this will draw more bipartisan support," noted Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno. "You have more collective interest, and it's bipartisan."

But the same size that attracts multiple sponsors can also make measures like the Omnibus Federal Land Management Acts Bill a big, fat target. With only a few weeks remaining in the congressional session, lawmakers will have to balance the bill's benefits against its potential political costs.

"You're facing an unbelievable threat that only you can defeat," American Land Rights Association President Charles Cushman warned his followers in a recent mass e-mail.

While some individual provisions in the big bill may be worthwhile, Cushman says, "a lot are bad." He is attempting to rally conservatives and private property advocates against a bill that he calls "no way to run a government."

In truth, omnibus bills are precisely the way Congress often operates. In 1992, for instance, canny authors of the controversial Central Valley Project Improvement Act included it in a package of more than 30 other bills. Even lawmakers leery of the CVPIA, which devoted more of the region's water to protecting the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, found other reasons to accept the overall bill.

"I resent, as have others, the fact that we are here held hostage to ... the Central Valley Project while we tried to attend to other legitimate projects," Republican Sen. Malcolm Wallop of Wyoming said at the time, "but we were unable to break that."

A staunch conservative, Wallop nonetheless voted for the 1992 Western water projects package that passed the Senate by an overwhelming 83-8 margin.

Some of the same environmental activists that backed the 1992 law are now supporting the San Joaquin River restoration effort. This time, though, they are joined by some farm and water organizations, including the Friant Water Users Authority.

"Congress, sometimes when they are having difficulty passing individual bills, will package them up together, warts and all," Friant Water Users Authority General Manager Ron Jacobsma said.

The San Joaquin River restoration bill is designed to implement a lawsuit settlement first filed in 1988. The bill authorizes $250 million for an array of channel improvements and other work needed to return salmon to the San Joaquin River by 2013.

Some lawmakers, including Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, and some farmers, including those in the Chowchilla Water District, have raised concerns about the potential loss of irrigation water. In part because of the conflict, the Chowchilla Water District has withdrawn from the Friant Water Users Authority.

"We are about to start an aggressive ad campaign to educate farmers about the settlement," said Tal Cloud, a Republican political activist who has been rallying opposition to the river deal.

The San Joaquin River portion spans 35 pages, or about 5 percent, of the Omnibus Federal Land Bill's total verbiage. It is the most expensive of the California provisions, but not the only one.

The Senate package also includes another provision authored by Costa, providing a $1 million grant to the California Water Institute. The institute, based at California State University, Fresno, would use the money to prepare a water management plan covering the area from San Joaquin to Kern counties. The Senate package also includes up to $23 million for a proposed underground storage project in Madera County.

McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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