River restoration bill finally nears completion

WASHINGTON -- San Joaquin River restoration efforts, a roller-coaster ride if there ever was one, now have cleared what could be the last big hump prior to congressional approval.

This week, negotiators resolved some final controversies over the bill's language. This isn't the first time negotiators have congratulated themselves, but the latest Capitol Hill progress sounds final.

"I think it should satisfy all concerned," Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein said Tuesday. "As far as I'm concerned, this is it."

The negotiations answered the lingering concerns of the "exchange contractors," who are Los Banos-area farmers irrigating about 200,000 acres on the San Joaquin Valley's west side. With these farmers mollified about future water supplies, the stage is set for the river restoration bill to be passed as part of an omnibus public lands package.

The public lands bill contains upward of 140 separate parks, wilderness and environmental provisions. Feinstein said "the odds are even" the Senate will take up the package during a brief lame-duck session next week; if it doesn't, Congress will consider the legislation next year.

"It pretty much takes care of it," Rep. George Radanovich, R-Mariposa, said Tuesday. "I think this thing is ready to go."

Feinstein is the chief Senate author of the river restoration bill, first introduced two years ago in considerably different form. Radanovich has joined with Reps. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, and Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, in pushing for the bill as well.

The river legislation has stalled since 2006, in part over questions of how to pay for it.

The original bill had a federal price tag of $250 million or more. It also alarmed some farmers who worry that restoring water flows and salmon populations to the San Joaquin River below Friant Dam will sap needed irrigation deliveries.

The farmer alarm remains in some circles, as Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, has been fighting a rear-guard action against a bill backed by the Bush administration, the state of California and several dozen irrigation agencies. The river rescue deal is supposed to settle a 20-year-old lawsuit filed by environmentalists unhappy over the decline of the once-teeming waterway.

"Restoring the San Joaquin River will benefit millions of Californians," declared attorney Hal Candee, who has represented the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Facing tough budget questions, Feinstein rewrote the $250 million river bill so that it only provides $88 million in guaranteed river restoration funding. The rest of the federal funds needed must be sought in future years, though Feinstein maintains the $88 million understates how much funding is likely.

The budget maneuver satisfied the congressional "pay-go" requirement that all spending be offset. However, it worried the Firebaugh Canal Water District, San Luis Canal Co. and other exchange contractors, which feared they might be shortchanged.

The modified bill is supposed to give high priority to exchange contractor projects, such as installing fish screens or fish bypass facilities along the San Joaquin River south of its confluence with the Merced River. The modified bill also conditions the start of interim flows down the San Joaquin River channel, currently slated for October 2009, upon completion of a big environmental study that is already underway.

The final revisions, agreed to late Monday night, are meant to ensure future irrigation deliveries with language stating that the river restoration plan will not modify the exchange contractors' existing federal contracts. The exchange contractors insisted on the language, though some lawmakers thought it unnecessary.