WASHINGTON — The nation's most respected scientists should re-examine California's Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and the controversial measures now protecting it, the Obama administration declared Wednesday.
In a nod to Central Valley residents and their increasingly angry congressional allies, the administration agreed to seek an independent review by the National Academy of Sciences. The study, announced at an often-heated public hearing Wednesday morning, would include a search for alternative environmental protections that might demand less sacrifice from farmers.
"This is a huge priority for the president and for me," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said. "We will do our part."
Salazar's promise, though, did not completely calm the Californians from both parties and many perspectives who are vehemently demanding more help with the state's water shortage.
"Our farm workers are hurting," Orange Cove Mayor Victor Lopez shouted. "How in the hell can you pay your rent? How are you going to pay your mortgage? (And) we just keep talking and talking."
Lopez was one of more than 100 participants in the half-day California water session convened by the Interior Department. Lawmakers, lobbyists and regulars gathered for the mini-summit, which followed a similar program held in Sacramento in August.
The Obama administration used the Wednesday hearing as a way to air the myriad California water problems as well as to offer some policy consolations. In addition to the proposed National Academy of Sciences study, Salazar announced that a new "memorandum of understanding" would bind six different federal agencies in a collaborative California effort.
The consolidated effort will now include a new "Bay-Delta Leadership Committee," co-led by the Interior Department and the White House's Council on Environmental Quality. Salazar also made the rhetorical gesture of urging Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the California Legislature to convene a special session on California water policies.
Negotiators are already meeting privately in Sacramento, and a special state Senate session will be convened if a water package can be agreed upon, state legislators noted Wednesday.
The proposed study now being jointly requested by the Interior and Commerce departments will look anew at two "biological opinions" used in protecting endangered species like smelt and salmon.
Taken together, the two biological opinions by the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service could cut irrigation deliveries by up to 30 percent. The sacrificed water is needed to protect habitat and several different fish regulated by the Endangered Species Act.
"At least some of the science is highly questionable," said Ron Jacobsma, general manager of the Friant Water Authority.
Salazar said he expects the new study would take six months or so. The National Academy of Sciences is an independent agency, conducting studies through the National Research Council, but it almost always complies with requests from cabinet-level departments.
There's still high-level disagreement, though, over what policy changes, if any, might result from the new scientific study. Salazar said he still stands by the biological opinions, and he dismissed the idea of reopening the formal "consultation" process through which federal agencies make environmental decisions.
Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, by contrast, favors adjusting the decision-making if circumstances warrant.
"The government is not infallible," Feinstein said.
Members of the San Joaquin Valley congressional delegation are likewise challenging federal decision-making.
"We are long past the point of (establishing) more committees," said Democratic Rep. Dennis Cardoza of Merced, noting that a previous Obama administration California "drought task force" did little. Democratic Rep. Jim Costa of Fresno complained that the Obama administration has shortchanged California water projects, including a "Two Gates" proposal now expected to cost upward of $45 million.
Two Gates involves installing removable gates in the Delta, between Stockton and Antioch, that would block smelt from swimming into giant pumps.
Another Two Gates project fan, Republican Rep. George Radanovich of Mariposa, described the "angst" felt by his constituents, while Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, angrily denounced the "radical extreme environmentalists" he says are allied with Bay Area lawmakers.
If the Bay Area residents want to protect the environment so much, Nunes said sarcastically, they should support tearing down O'Shaugnessy Dam and restoring Yosemite's Hetch Hetchy Valley.
Feinstein, too, flared up for a moment when she chastised California farmers who supported an amendment -- originally written by Nunes -- that would have blocked the California biological opinions for a year. Sen. Jim DeMint, a Republican from South Carolina backed by Westlands Water District and other farm organizations, surprised Feinstein with the amendment that was ultimately defeated last week.
"I never thought I would be in that position, where people I have worked with for 15 years have blindsided me like that," Feinstein complained.