Politics & Government

San Joaquin River restoration bill postponed until 2009

WASHINGTON —The Senate will postpone until early next year action on a big public lands bill that includes efforts to restore the San Joaquin River, lawmakers decided Monday.

While not entirely unexpected, the delay disappoints those who had hoped to resolve the long-simmering river restoration issue sooner rather than later. It also gives supporters and opponents more time to maneuver.

"It's unfortunate that the Senate could not move on this bill," said Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, adding that "it is my hope that the House will move quickly" in January.

The ambitious San Joaquin River plan is one of about 150 bills folded into an omnibus public lands package that's designed to attract widespread political support. Other California elements include a Madera County groundwater bank project and a John Krebs Wilderness designation in the Sierra Nevada.

Lawmakers once spoke of moving the massive legislation during the lame-duck congressional session this week, but that schedule proved too ambitious amid ongoing negotiations over an economic stimulus deal and an auto industry bailout.

"Rather than move forward on the lands package, which is ... so important to a lot of senators and certainly a lot of people around the country, we're better off waiting until we come back," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced early Monday afternoon.

The San Joaquin River bill would restore water flows next year below Friant Dam and return salmon to the river channel by 2013. It is designed to settle a 20-year-old lawsuit won by environmentalists unhappy over loss of the river's once-thriving salmon run.

The San Joaquin River plan is supported by myriad lawmakers, environmental groups and several dozen water districts. Negotiations last week appeared to resolve lingering concerns of farmers in the Los Banos area, who wanted to protect their own long-term water contracts.

"We've been through a little bit of a roller coaster," acknowledged Ron Jacobsma, general manager of the Friant Water Users Authority, but "in many ways, the settlement today is better than what it was two years ago."

Even so, farmers worried about losing irrigation supplies could use the next several weeks to resist the river provision. Last week, Kings County Farm Bureau president Tim Larson urged California lawmakers to go slow.

"Our concern is not only for our future, but extends beyond the boundaries of our county to include our neighboring counties," Larson wrote, citing a "lack of federal funding (and) a risk of future litigation."

More broadly, some conservative lawmakers as well as organizations including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce raised alarms about the overall public lands bill as being pork-laden.

Reid said Monday that unnamed senators threatened to invoke a rarely used Senate rule requiring that the entire bill be read aloud on the Senate floor. At well over 760 pages, Reid estimated that it would take at least 24 hours to get through the reading.

Reid's decision means the bill will return in a markedly different political environment. The Democrats will hold at least 57 seats in the Senate, giving them more leeway to force through legislation.

"In January, we'll have more votes," Reid said, adding that the public lands measure will be "the first or second thing we do when we come back in January."

The overall package could change, reflecting the Senate's own changes. Several senators from states that have provisions in the current bill, including Idaho and Alaska, are leaving Capitol Hill, although that won't necessarily mean the states' provisions will be stripped out.