Administration opposes bill to scuttle San Joaquin River restoration

WASHINGTON — California officials and the Obama administration on Thursday strongly objected to a politically divisive bill that blocks San Joaquin River restoration efforts, casting the bill's long-term prospects into doubt.

Citing "very serious problems" with the bill authored by Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, administration officials warned against breaking apart the river restoration settlement that ended in 2006 an 18-year-long lawsuit pitting farmers against environmentalists.

"The bill would not only undo the very valuable restoration work committed to by all the settling parties, but would also ... pave the way for many more years of costly court battles," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar warned a House panel.

As a statement and as a wedge, though, the San Joaquin Valley Water Reliability Act could succeed even if it dies in the Senate. Potentially, critics fear it might also propel over the finish line other California water provisions.

Republicans specifically cast the legislation in partisan terms, repeatedly contrasting the GOP's farmer-friendly efforts with what Nunes described as "four years of neglect by the (previous) Democratic majority." The bill undeniably allows lawmakers to articulate a position, with various Republicans Thursday denouncing "uncompromising environmental groups" and "left-wing ideology."

"California's San Joaquin Valley is ground zero for what's gone wrong with federal water policy," declared Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Elk Grove, the chair of the House water and power subcommittee.

Though the hearing was the first on Capitol Hill to consider the water legislation, lawmakers and witnesses spent at least as much time revisiting old feuds as on explicating the bill's details. At one point, Westlands Water District general manager Tom Birmingham and Rep. John Garamendi, R-Walnut Grove, repeatedly clashed over water negotiations they had back in 1997.

This year's 38-page bill would stop the ambitious program that currently aims to return salmon to the San Joaquin River by Dec. 31, 2012. The bill also would lengthen irrigation contracts, curtail environmental protections in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and provide farmers more water.

"The pumps have to run," Nunes said, and "the San Joaquin River boondoggle has to end."

Working on a separate front, Nunes and his allies succeeded Thursday in stripping some $66 million in San Joaquin River restoration funds from a fiscal 2012 spending bill.

The Friant Water Users Authority and the Natural Resources Defense Council signed the river settlement in 2006. Without the agreement, negotiators reckoned that a federal judge would control the water decisions.

Barry Nelson of the Natural Resources Defense Council and Cynthia Koehler of the Environmental Defense Fund both cautioned as well Thursday that cracking the river settlement could undermine confidence in other water negotiations, particularly those underway through the Bay Delta Conservation Plan.

Neither Friant nor the NRDC were invited to testify Thursday. Instead, the subcommittee summoned farmer Kole Upton, a former Friant chairman who now opposes the river restoration plan.

"The salmon restoration is behind the schedule and the question should be asked whether this effort warrants the expenditure of so much public money," Upton stated.

Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Michael Connor acknowledged the Dec. 31, 2012 deadline for returning salmon to the river may slip, suggesting that "we are interesting in looking at the schedule" for possible revisions.

The water bill is almost certain to pass the Republican-controlled House, possibly this summer. It supporters include House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, while Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, added Thursday that he will likewise support the bill so that further negotiations can ensue

Neither of California's two Democratic senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, support the current bill. This complicates the bill's final passage, though Nunes says he's working with senators from other states.