Politics & Government

Interior Dept. aims to unify smelt, salmon protection in California

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration on Monday set up a new task force to wrangle California water decisions, with long-term hopes of consolidating protections for smelt and salmon.

The new task force eventually envisions one unified environmental management plan assisting the fish species dependent upon the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Guided by an Interior Department veteran with considerable California experience, the task force has shorter-term goals, as well.

"(This will) ensure that we are coordinating to use state-of-the-art science and to find the best alternatives to protect both endangered fish and water supplies," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in a statement.

Salazar and his Commerce Department counterpart, Gary Locke, oversee the two federal agencies responsible for protection of the smelt and salmon. Under intense pressure from California lawmakers, both have been scrambling to free up more water and to show that they feel the state's pain.

The task force, and a unified environmental management plan, are supposed to address worries that federal agencies aren't properly coordinating their actions.

The Interior Department wrote one "biological opinion," spelling out protection measures for the Delta smelt. Separately, the Commerce Department wrote another biological opinion spelling out protection measures for steelhead and chinook salmon.

Last year, in part because of the environmental protections, farmers on the San Joaquin Valley's west side received only 10 percent of their normal water allocation. So far this year, officials have indicated farmers can expect at least 30 percent.

Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein on Monday applauded the possibility of merging the Interior and Commerce department opinions, saying it "makes good common sense." The nonpartisan National Research Council, in a preliminary report issued in March, similarly cited the potential virtues of merging management plans.

"The lack of a systematic, well-framed overall analysis is a serious scientific deficiency," the council warned in March.

The new task force is supposed to come up with a list of "near-term actions" by May 30. By November, the task force will be looking at ways to integrate the Interior and Commerce department management plans with the state's Bay-Delta Conservation Plan.

The integrated biological opinion is expected to come out in early 2012.

"We welcome the federal effort," Lester Snow, California's secretary of natural resources, said in a statement.