WASHINGTON -- A key Senate committee on Wednesday handily approved a revised but still ambitious bill to restore the San Joaquin River.
Following months of tinkering and political maneuvering, lawmakers quickly embraced the river restoration effort. The Senate Energy and Natural Resource Committee's approval by a bipartisan 15-7 margin builds momentum, while not eliminating all resistance.
"Bottom line: This legislation can help resolve one of the oldest water disputes in the West," Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein declared after the committee's approval.
The bill authorizes work to improve the parched river channel below Friant Dam, so more water can be released and salmon reintroduced. The bill now has a federal price tag of roughly $190 million, although calculating the full cost of river restoration is very complicated.
"I see this as a huge federal commitment and expense that has a lot of implications and consequences," cautioned Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., further warning of a "pretty heavy cost to taxpayers."
DeMint asserted farmers and the government could end up spending millions of dollars for each salmon, prompting Republican Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho to suggest "those must be awfully good fish." River restoration supporters say DeMint is relying on exaggerated numbers and assumptions.
The fiscally conservative DeMint was encouraged to fight the river bill by Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, who on Wednesday afternoon reiterated his opposition while acknowledging "efforts to make it better." The National Taxpayers Union and some other House Republicans are likewise skeptical, and Northern California's Hoopa Valley Tribe has raised concerns about potential impacts on the Trinity River.
DeMint was nonetheless the only senator to substantively speak out Wednesday during a debate that lasted about 10 minutes.
"The only questions about the bill seemed to be based on misinformation," said attorney Hal Candee, who helped negotiate the San Joaquin River deal on behalf of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
By contrast, senators earlier debated for nearly 90 minutes a bill giving wild-and-scenic status to portions of Wyoming's Snake River.
A House committee approved a similar but not identical San Joaquin River bill in November. Since then, negotiators have modified the legislation. In particular, the bill now includes at least $52 million for projects protecting the irrigation supplies of Friant-area farmers.
This new money would pay for improvements to the Madera and Friant-Kern canals, among other farmer-friendly efforts. These improvements are supposed to help partially offset the loss of irrigation water, as restoring river flows below Friant Dam will cut average irrigation deliveries by 19 percent annually.
"The amendments have done a lot to make people more comfortable," said Ernest A. Conant, a Bakersfield-based special counsel for the Friant Water Users Authority. "We're pleased to get this bill out (of committee); we think it's the best solution."
Friant's 22 member irrigation and water districts now support the revised legislation, Conant said. As part of the deal, the Friant districts will float a bond to repay the federal government about $165 million for Friant's construction
Conant noted that his son was born in 1988, the same year environmental groups sued the federal government over Friant Dam operations. Conant's son is now in college. Candee, who filed the original suit, was likewise in the crowded Senate committee room Wednesday.
The San Joaquin River bill will now be folded into a much larger parks and public lands package, with several dozen bills designed to draw nationwide support. This package, in turn, could be wrapped into an even larger must-pass bill funding the federal government.
One recurring issue left unresolved Wednesday is how lawmakers will offset the river bill's cost.