House rejects California lawmaker's water amendment

WASHINGTON — Central Valley lawmakers this week briefly summoned House attention to the region's water shortages, challenging the environmental rules that have curtailed irrigation deliveries.

Legislatively, the Valley lawmakers failed. By a 218-208 vote Thursday afternoon, the House rejected an amendment by Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, that would have blocked a federal decision steering more irrigation water into fish habitat protection.

Rhetorically, Nunes and his allies insist they put a useful spotlight on a region they believe has been ignored too long.

"It's OK to value fish, that's OK," Nunes said during House debate, "but understand you're starving families while you value fish."

The vote Thursday was closer than some expected, with 37 Democrats joining all but two Republicans in supporting Nunes. Democratic Reps. Jim Costa of Fresno, Dennis Cardoza of Merced and Jerry McNerney of Pleasanton voted for the amendment, with Cardoza using his House Rules Committee position to ensure the amendment got a vote on the floor.

Republican Rep. George Radanovich of Mariposa also voted for the amendment.

The amendment offered to a $65 billion spending bill would have prohibited federal funds from paying for a set of rules issued June 4 called a "biological opinion." The National Marine Fisheries Service rules in question cut Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta water diversions by up to 7 percent to protect endangered Chinook salmon and steelhead.

The federal agency ordered the reduction in pumping, which amounts to about 330,000 acre-feet a year, after concluding that current operations were killing too many fish. The agency also directed that more water be stored behind Shasta Dam, among other changes.

The agency was compelled to complete its 844-page biological opinion by U.S. District Judge Oliver Wanger, who was appointed to the bench by former President George H.W. Bush. Wanger determined last year that the agency's previous plan failed to adequately protect fish.

"I appreciate the frustration of my friends who live in the Valley, who are undergoing very serious economic times" said Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, "but to throw out this biological opinion makes nothing better."

Rod McInnis, Southwest regional director of the fisheries service, added when the biological opinion was issued that "what is at stake here is not just the survival of species but the health of entire ecosystems and the economies that depend on them."

Many of the 37 Democrats voting for the amendment were from rural areas, but they included the party's second-highest ranking members, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland.

The California water amendment debated for about 16 minutes on Wednesday and rejected on Thursday will come back again. Nunes said he will keep offering similar amendments on the appropriations bills needed to fund the federal government in fiscal 2010.

"This isn't a solution to the problem," Nunes said, "but it's all we can do."

The Nunes amendment was one of several dozen offered to the appropriations bill funding the Commerce and Justice departments and other agencies. Many were a foregone conclusion, being familiar from past battles. Conservatives, for instance, failed by a 323-105 margin to eliminate the Legal Services Corp., which aids the poor.

The Senate and House will still have to reconcile differing versions of the bill.