WASHINGTON — The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta would become a "national heritage area" and receive federal funding and planning oversight under a controversial provision slipped into a massive spending bill that died a sudden death Thursday night.
Introduced by Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the proposed Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Heritage Area would have been eligible for up to $10 million over the next 10 years. The five-county area would also get a new management plan, though private property owners could opt out.
"The provision directs modest funds to the Delta to be used for programs like tourism promotion, economic development and community revitalization," Feinstein's press secretary Tom Mentzer said Thursday.
Some lawmakers, nonetheless, remain leery of the national heritage area idea and what it portends for private property and water rights. The idea will continue to incite debate, even though Senate Democrats on Thursday night abruptly withdrew the giant funding bill to which it was attached.
"National heritage areas create another layer of government between water rights owners and the government who controls delivery," Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, declared in a statement.
Mentzer pointedly rebutted Nunes' concerns, stating that "we encourage Mr. Nunes to read the language in the bill." The legislation, for instance, explicitly states that "nothing ... affects any water rights or contracts."
Independently, the Government Accountability Office concluded several years ago that national heritage areas "do not appear to have directly affected the rights of property owners."
Still, Feinstein's proposal and its seemingly abrupt appearance in a lame-duck Congress revived conservative anxieties that have previously blocked other national heritage area proposals in California.
Nearly a decade ago, Rep. George Radanovich, R-Mariposa, proposed assigning national heritage status to much of historic Highway 49 throughout the Sierra Nevada. Opposition from his fellow Republicans killed the plan.
Democratic Rep. Jim Costa of Fresno said Thursday that his position on a Delta national heritage area depends on what planning ultimately results. He added that "it's never been clear" how a new heritage area plan might align with other Delta planning now underway, such as the ongoing Bay Delta Conservation Plan.
"If the (new heritage area) plan is fair and balanced, I can support that," Costa said.
On Wednesday, state and federal officials used the Bay Delta Conservation Plan to announce their support for constructing underground tunnels that would divert water around the Delta. At an estimated cost of $13 billion, the water diversion plan is far more ambitious than anything anticipated under the proposed Delta heritage area.
There are currently 49 national heritage areas, ranging from New York's Erie Canal to Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. The areas receive planning and technical assistance from the National Park Service, as well as potential additional funding, but the park service does not actively manage them.
Their long-term funding is in question. This year, the Obama administration proposed cutting the national heritage area budget by about half, to $9 million. Even if current spending levels were retained, the proposed Delta heritage area would almost certainly receive far less than the $1 million the bill authorizes annually.
The proposed Delta heritage area would include portions of Sacramento, San Joaquin, Contra Costa, Yolo and Solano counties. Oversight responsibilities would be assigned to an existing Delta Protection Commission.
The commission would have five years to prepare a management plan that incorporates "agricultural resources and activities, flood protection facilities, and other public infrastructure."
Feinstein and Rep. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Creek, introduced companion bills in September, but no hearings were held. Feinstein then quietly added the heritage area provision to a 1,924-page omnibus spending bill that appeared in recent days, designed to fund the federal government through fiscal 2011.
The overall bill collapsed suddenly Thursday night, in part because of Republican discontent over thousands of individual spending earmarks. As an alternative to the $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill, some lawmakers prefer an earmark-free bill that simply keeps the government running for several more months.