Politics & Government

Work continues on wobbly San Joaquin River plan

WASHINGTON — Lawmakers are revisiting a San Joaquin River restoration plan even as it comes under sustained pressure.

With two Valley water districts raising pointed questions recently, negotiators continue to tinker with the ambitious river plan. Some options could delay the time when water starts flowing downstream from Friant Dam.

"There's a lot that has to be hashed out here," said Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia. "A lot of chess moves have to be made."

Nunes represents many farmers served by Friant irrigation water. He is also a vehement critic of the plan to steer more water toward restoring the San Joaquin River and its long-depleted salmon population.

He's watching closely, though, as Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein and other river restoration supporters refine a plan with many delicate moving parts: legal, political and personal.

On Monday in Chowchilla, and again in Sacramento on Thursday, California water officials met privately to see where they stood. Participants called the meetings amicable. Still, they reflected some of the unraveling that's occurred since unified Friant farmers and environmentalists in September 2006 announced settlement of an 18-year-old lawsuit.

The settlement called for interim water flows to resume through the San Joaquin River channel in October 2009. Salmon would be returned by 2013, and hundreds of millions of dollars would be spent on levees and other channel improvements.

Congress hasn't yet passed the legislation needed to put the plan into practice, and lawmakers now are in a classic Capitol Hill bind: Every change made to overcome one obstacle raises impediments somewhere else.

"The (Tulare Irrigation) District has watched with concern the process in Washington that has resulted in amendments being proposed, with the intent of allowing the bill to move through Congress in the near future," Tulare Irrigation District President David G. Bixler wrote on Oct. 2.

Feinstein, for instance, recently removed much of the river legislation's guaranteed funding. This would overcome congressional budget obstacles, which require such spending to be paid for. But it worries some farmers, who fear future Congresses won't restore the money.

More recently, lawmakers have suggested postponing the start of interim water flows from Friant Dam until the Interior Department completes cost-and-impact studies. This new twist could potentially push back the original October 2009 start date, already strained by the congressional delay, but the exact impact is unclear.

With its early October letter, the Tulare district set the stage for potentially withdrawing from the river restoration settlement. The district was the second to invoke a settlement provision that requires a 30-day cooling-off period before any party formally void the agreement. The Chowchilla Water District had earlier invoked the same provision, leading to the most recent meeting Monday where district leaders presented a six-page set of questions.

"We're reasonable people, and we'd like to see how these questions are answered," said Madera County farmer Kole Upton, a director of the Chowchilla Water District.

The Chowchilla district could now potentially withdraw from the river settlement as early as Oct. 16; the Tulare district could potentially withdraw sometime after Nov. 2. Friant officials say they could still proceed with the river plan even if the individual water districts pulled out; Upton said he is not sure what would happen. Nor is it even clear whether Congress will have time to deal with the issue this year.

A post-election lame-duck session needed to pass any legislation might not take place if Democratic Sen. Barack Obama wins the presidency in November. Practically speaking, congressional Democrats might then choose to postpone all legislation to a more favorable political environment next year.