WASHINGTON -- The Senate on Thursday approved a grab-bag public lands bill that's supposed to save the San Joaquin River, store Madera County groundwater and secure Sierra Nevada wilderness.
Weighing in at 1,296 pages, the public lands bill was stuffed with more than enough goodies to ensure its passage over conservative opposition. Once approved by the House, it's bound to become one of the first bills signed by President-elect Barack Obama after he takes office.
"Restoring the once-mighty San Joaquin River -- and putting an end to the years of legal battles over the river's resources -- has long been one of my top priorities," Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein declared. "The good news is that the Senate today took us one step closer to this vital goal."
Lawmakers call the bill the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act of 2009. Skeptics call it pork, but they could not block its 150-plus provisions through a filibuster. The bill passed easily, 73-21.
"I believe we're doing this because we're thinking in the very short term," said Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, citing the "blatant, corrupting process of earmarks."
Senators constructed the public lands package by combining individual bills, some of which had been floating around for years. The California provisions include:
-- San Joaquin River restoration -- The bill directly provides $88 million and the work necessary to restore water flows and the salmon population below Friant Dam. This federal money is a down payment on a highly ambitious effort that settles a lawsuit filed by the Natural Resources Defense Council in 1988.
-- Storing Madera County groundwater -- The bill authorizes $22.5 million to help the Madera Irrigation District construct an underground water bank, designed to store up to 250,000 acre-feet of water. Notably, the bill unilaterally declares the project planned for the 13,646-acre Madera Ranch near Highway 99 to be "feasible" and establishes that "no further studies" are needed.
-- Expanding Sierra Nevada wilderness -- The bill honors former Fresno-area congressman John Krebs by designating 39,740 acres of land currently in Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks as the "John Krebs Wilderness." This is smaller than original plans, although an additional 45,186 acres in the southern Sierra Nevada will be added to the existing Sequoia-Kings Canyon Wilderness.
The legislation adds, as well, new wilderness protection to land in Inyo and Mono counties, on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada. It orders a study of adding the infamous Tule Lake camp, where Japanese-Americans where confined in World War II, to the national park system. It transfers 66 acres in Tuolumne County to the Me-Wuk Indians.
Well beyond California, the bill sets the stage for a potential William Jefferson Clinton Birthplace Home National Historic Site in Arkansas, creates the new Ice Age Floods National Historic Trail in four Northwestern states and adds to the Everglades National Park.
The Senate package required compromise as well as muscle.
The new 39,740-acre Krebs wilderness, for instance, shrunk from original plans to designate some 69,000 acres. Negotiators also exempted privately owned cabins in the Mineral King Valley and allowed Southern California Edison to use helicopters in maintaining check dams in the otherwise pristine wilderness. Lawmakers, including Reps. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, and Jim Costa, D-Fresno, took more than a year to negotiate the deal.
The wilderness will become one of the very few in the nation named for a still-living individual. Krebs, who turned 82 last month, authored the 1978 legislation that protected the Mineral King Valley from potential development.
Negotiators similarly cut the cost of the San Joaquin River bill after it was first introduced in 2006. They had been having trouble finding the $250 million needed to offset the original price tag.
"This is a truly momentous effort," said Monty Schmitt, senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, "because it will result in restoring flows and salmon to one of California's largest rivers while also providing water supplies for farms and cities."
Even with the compromises, myriad unanswered questions remain, particularly over long-term costs and consequences.
Northern California Indian tribes still worry Trinity River improvements could lose out on money flowing instead to the San Joaquin River. Some farmers in Madera County and elsewhere worry their irrigation supplies will likewise dry up by the time salmon are restored in 2013.
"(It) is fiscally irresponsible," said Nunes. "It represents an attack on our local economy during a period of national economic crisis and will deprive our region of precious surface water at a time of critical shortage."
The state of California is providing $200 million, and federal spending will almost certainly rise above the $88 million directly provided for restoration. The money will pay for improving the river channel, isolating gravel pits so they don't trap salmon, installing fish screens and building a bypass around the Mendota Pool in western Fresno County.