Feinstein's water plan complicates Boxer's re-election bid

WASHINGTON — Sen. Dianne Feinstein has just complicated Sen. Barbara Boxer's search for San Joaquin Valley voters.

By announcing plans to override scientists and boost irrigation deliveries, Feinstein gratified Valley farmers and the region's farm-friendly lawmakers. She also antagonized some key Democrats and emboldened Republicans hoping to challenge Boxer.

On Friday, Republican Senate candidate Carly Fiorina sharpened the wedge created by Feinstein's proposal to rewrite the so-called "biological opinions" that govern California water allocations and protect endangered species like Delta smelt and salmon.

"I appreciate Senator Feinstein's recognition of the disastrous effects the biological opinion is having on the Central Valley," Fiorina said. "The question remains: Will Senator Boxer join her in standing up for the people of California?"

Feinstein's still-secret water delivery amendment already has gone through at least half a dozen drafts so far, according to one individual familiar with it. Three sections include a rewrite of the biological opinions, a specific allocation of water to farmers and financial aid to California salmon fishermen hurt by reduced river flows, according to this informed individual, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Feinstein's stated goal is to ensure San Joaquin Valley farmers receive up to 40 percent of their allocated water deliveries. Last year, farmers got only 10 percent of their allocation.

Fiorina's political calculus, in turn, seems a simple case of divide and conquer.

If Boxer endorses outright a plan to rewrite the biological opinions governing California water deliveries, she could alienate her own closest supporters within the environmental community. If Boxer sticks with the current irrigation cutbacks, she could further incite already unhappy farmers.

"I have to imagine that Boxer is absolutely getting pummeled in the Valley," said Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia.

Nunes, though, also voiced skepticism about the current negotiations. He said "the fix is in," that will enable Boxer to endorse a plan that gives farmers some more water but not nearly as much as they want. Nunes believes farmers will end up with about 20 percent of their normal allocation.

"Senator Boxer is working with all sides to find ways to get water to communities in the Central Valley that are suffering from drought and water shortages," Boxer's spokesman, Zachary Coile, said Friday.

Fiorina, former Rep. Tom Campbell and Assemblyman Chuck Devore of Irvine are all seeking the Republican nomination for the right to challenge Boxer. For any Republican, dampening Boxer's Valley vote total will be crucial for victory.

In 2004, Republican candidate Bill Jones surpassed Boxer in Valley counties including Fresno, Kings, Madera, Stanislaus and Tulare, even though he was walloped statewide. The 2010 Republican candidate, whoever it is, will likewise need to roll up a big Valley margin as part of a statewide victory strategy.

Water — always a big issue in the Valley — will get major statewide attention in November, especially because voters will be considering an $11 billion water bond.

"(Water) does resonate where it wouldn't have five to 10 years ago," said Gale Kaufman, a Democratic political consultant in Sacramento. "There are real problems, and people get it."

But it remains a tricky issue for candidates, Kaufman added, because while one "can be sympathetic" to the Valley's economic plight, a statewide candidate still must acknowledge environmental sensitivities.

"It's a good issue and I think it rings true for a Republican trying to capture the nomination," pollster Mark DiCamillo of the Field Poll said, adding that "even crossover Democrats might have some interest in revving up the agricultural economy of the state."

Jeffrey Michael, who runs the Business Forecasting Center at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, said in a report last year that the housing construction collapse cost the region 47,000 jobs, compared with 6,000 jobs lost in 2009 as a result of water shortages.

For now, Democratic Reps. Dennis Cardoza of Merced and Jim Costa of Fresno could be among the political beneficiaries of a water delivery amendment, which Feinstein wants to add to a Senate jobs bill coming up for a vote in late February. Both Valley Democrats have been urging Feinstein to act, and both were very quick Thursday to praise the potential amendment.

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