WASHINGTON — Republican lawmakers on Wednesday resumed their controversial efforts to repeal a San Joaquin River restoration plan and curtail fish and wildlife protections.
In a wide-ranging bill introduced without Democratic support or complete farmer knowledge, three GOP House members would lengthen irrigation contracts, limit legal challenges from environmentalists and limit the amount of water diverted from farms.
Most pointedly, the bill would upend the carefully negotiated settlement that aims to return water and salmon to the San Joaquin River below Friant Dam.
"We've got to cut through regulations," said Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Atwater. "We've got to do everything we can to get water moving."
Denham joined House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, in co-sponsoring the bill primarily authored by Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia.
Dubbed the San Joaquin Valley Water Reliability Act, the legislation could put Valley farmers in a bind. Some measures they invariably favor, like increasing federal irrigation contracts to 40 years instead of the current 25 years.
"We listened to the people, and we have put forward a plan," Nunes said.
Some provisions, though, aren't so simple.
Ending the San Joaquin River restoration program, in particular, runs counter to a court settlement agreed to in 2006 by the 22 irrigation districts represented by the Friant Water Users Authority. The farmers negotiated the settlement with environmentalists to avoid having a federal judge impose water delivery decisions.
"There hasn't been much of an appetite to modify the settlement," Friant Water Users Authority general manager Ron Jacobsma said Wednesday, stressing that "the settling parties have signed a court-approved contract."
A federal judge will retain authority over the settlement until 2026; the judge's power over the river remains intact, even if Congress repeals the legislation.
Jacobsma added that he and others have been focused on putting the river restoration plan into practice and that he had not yet seen the detailed 38-page bill introduced by the local congressmen.
Spring-run and fall-run Chinook salmon are supposed to be introduced into the revived river by December 2012, under the river restoration plan.
Denham's predecessor, former Rep. George Radanovich, R-Mariposa, pushed through the House the 2009 legislation that implements the river settlement. California's two senators have no interest in repealing this river restoration plan, further casting into doubt the long-term prospects of the bill introduced Wednesday.
"The repeal of the San Joaquin settlement would be problematic and potentially bring us back to the days of costly and prolonged legal battles," said Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno.
But Costa, noting that he hadn't seen the bill until Wednesday, added that he does support some provisions designed to boost irrigation deliveries. These other provisions may have a better shot at success.
Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who will be a key gatekeeper for any California water legislation in the Senate, said Wednesday that "the solution has never been to arbitrarily waive all federal laws, nor ... ignore decades of science." Still, she also said she will "look forward" to working with House members on water issues.
Other parts of the bill amount to a grab bag of water-related items.
The bill, for instance, authorizes federal funds for four new or expanded California reservoirs, including the Sites Reservoir in the Sacramento Valley and a new storage facility on the Upper San Joaquin River.
In dry years, the bill also limits the amount of water going to fish and wildlife habitat, and it restricts the ability of the Endangered Species Act to limit water deliveries.
McClatchy Newspapers 2011