Sen. Feinstein to seek increased irrigation deliveries to farmers

WASHINGTON — Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein is roiling California water politics with new plans to override scientists and boost irrigation deliveries to San Joaquin Valley farms.

Urged on by Valley farmers and lawmakers, Feinstein on Thursday made public her hopes of tacking a California water-delivery amendment onto an upcoming Senate jobs bill. The details remain closely held, but Feinstein said her intention is to provide farmers with up to 40 percent of their normal allocated amounts.

Currently, farmers south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta are scheduled to receive only 10 percent of their allocation.

"I believe we need a fair compromise that will respect the Endangered Species Act while recognizing the fact that people in California's breadbasket face complete economic ruin without help," Feinstein said Thursday.

Feinstein discussed the water delivery issues Thursday in a conference call with the Westlands Water District and others favoring more irrigation deliveries to farms. Once made public, the conversation raised alarms among skeptics who fear unintended consequences and weakened environmental protections.

Environmental Defense Fund analyst A. Spreck Rosekrans, echoing several other environmental advocates, cautioned that "we're very concerned" about a maneuver that appears to exempt certain irrigation decisions from a key environmental law.

"A political judgment on the science seems unwarranted," Rosekrans said.

The current water cutbacks are due to a combination of the previous year's drought and diversions to protect endangered species.

In order to increase irrigation pumping, Feinstein and her allies must find a way around two "biological opinions" that govern federal water allocations. A Fish and Wildlife Service biological opinion issued in December 2008 protects the Delta smelt. A National Marine Fisheries Service opinion issued in June 2009 protects steelhead and salmon.

At the behest of Feinstein and others, the National Research Council is already reviewing the two California water biological opinions. The initial assessment is due in early March.

Feinstein and her allies are considering rewriting part of the biological opinions to mandate the delivery of more irrigation water. Feinstein on Thursday cited a precedent from 2003, when Congress did something similar to assist Albuquerque's water supply.

In public, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, has been citing the Albuquerque-vs.-silvery minnow example for many months. The rhetoric has been heated at times, and Feinstein in September led the Senate rejection of an amendment ostensibly modeled on the 2003 case.

Behind the scenes, though, Reps. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, and Jim Costa, D-Fresno, have been pressing similar points. On Thursday, Costa said the new language being drafted would be different from what Nunes had proposed.

"To be stuck with a 10 percent water allocation is just unfair," Costa said.

But American Rivers senior vice president Andrew Fahlund warned that increasing water pumping to Valley farms "could be the end of the West Coast salmon fishery," and angry environmental negotiators on Thursday threatened to walk away from broader California water talks convened around the Bay Delta Conservation Plan.

The group effort includes public agencies, farm groups and environmentalists who seek consensus on a new water conveyance system around the Delta.

Ann Hayden, a senior water resource analyst with the Environmental Defense Fund, said Feinstein's proposal would weaken short-term species protections and make long-term planning difficult.

"We're thinking about possibly suspending our participation in the process until and unless adequate protections are in place," Hayden said.

(Doyle reported from Washington; Schultz, a reporter for The Fresno Bee, reported from Sacramento.)