California lawmakers blast administration on state's water woes

WASHINGTON — California lawmakers from across the political spectrum voiced continued frustration Thursday with the Obama administration's handling of the state's water problems.

Underscoring the bipartisan anger, Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, warned that he was "deeply concerned" with the performance of Sacramento-based federal irrigation officials. A leading environmentalist, Miller suggested "new leadership" may be needed in the Bureau of Reclamation's large Mid-Pacific Region.

"They seem overwhelmed," Miller said. "They don't seem to have a sense of urgency."

Miller's stern words were echoed at a House subcommittee hearing by two lawmakers who often disagree with him on environmental protection priorities, Reps. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, and Tom McClintock, R-Granite Bay. The chorus added pressure on the officials who divvy up water among fish, farms and cities.

"We need them to understand the urgency of the crisis," Costa said.

The budget hearing Thursday afternoon was convened as a routine oversight session, but it was occurring at an extraordinary time in California water politics. Obama administration officials now seek additional water to augment the 5 percent allocation previously announced for farmers south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Michael Connor acknowledged that "we have had a tough time" starting work on one California water delivery project, fish screens funded through a $787 billion stimulus bill. Connor attributed the delay to unexpectedly high bids.

Connor did not speak directly to the broader management concerns raised Thursday. Instead, he defended his agency's $1 billion budget request and stressed his intention to serve "the best interest of the public" in the 17 Western states where the bureau operates.

"We have been listening to you," Connor told the House water and power subcommittee.

The Obama administration's proposed fiscal 2011 budget identifies $72.1 million to help fund San Joaquin River restoration, as part of a lawsuit settlement reached between farmers and environmentalists. The money would pay for rehabilitating the river channel below Friant Dam so that long-absent salmon may be reintroduced.

The $72.1 million request, though, only covers money paid by the farmers themselves. San Joaquin River restoration supporters hope Congress will provide additional funding, as well.

An additional $40 million is being sought for restoring the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and San Francisco Bay. The administration also wants $5 million to study the feasibility of removing four dams on the Lower Klamath River, prompting McClintock to complain about lost hydropower potential.

As early as Monday, the National Research Council is expected to release the first phase of a closely watched study examining key water decisions in California. The 15-member study panel is focusing on a 2008 Fish and Wildlife Service decision and a 2009 National Marine Fisheries Service decision. Both restrict irrigation deliveries.

The two management decisions now being second-guessed, called "biological opinions," were designed to protect endangered species including salmon and the Delta smelt. The committee spent five days in Davis in January, hearing from assorted experts.

One study goal is to find ways to protect the fish while still delivering more water to farmers.