[env-trinity] Fresno, farmers say split costs them: In second congressional hearing on Delta crisis, some object to project's environmental provisions

Josh Allen jallen at trinitycounty.org
Mon Mar 27 10:52:42 PST 2006


Fresno, farmers say split costs them

In second congressional hearing on Delta crisis, some object to
project's environmental provisions

By Mike Taugher


FRESNO - In the heart of the nation's richest agricultural region, farm
agency representatives said Friday it was time to rein in a far-reaching
environmental restoration law and move faster to build reservoirs to
secure more water for farms, cities and wildlife.

"We got to stick together ... for the fight of our lives," Fresno Mayor
Alan Autry said before a crowd of more than 200. "There is enough water
to go around, but it's going to other parts of the state."

The Delta, an important source of water for the Bay Area, Southern
California cities, Central Valley farmers and numerous fish species that
depend on it for habitat, is under intense scrutiny as competing users
battle over who gets the water.

"Right now, we don't have enough water for the people who are already
here," Autry said, predicting that failing to secure more water for
farmers would leave the burgeoning San Joaquin Valley "the largest
welfare state within a state that the world has ever seen."

For the second time in less than a month, a congressional panel gathered
to look at problems in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, this time
focusing on frustrations about the Central Valley Project Improvement
Act, which farmers believe has cost them water and money.

The hearing was called by Rep. George Radanovich, R-Mariposa, to review
the 1992 law, which was authored by Martinez Democrat Rep. George Miller
and former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley.

San Joaquin Valley farmers who get water from the federal water project,
one of the nation's largest, object to provisions that shift 800,000
acre-feet of water a year from agricultural use to the environment. That
is enough water for about 1.5 million homes.

They also question whether they should continue to be charged for
environmental restoration.

The law was meant to reverse environmental damage caused by the Central
Valley Project since it began delivering water in the early 1930s, first
to the relatively small Contra Costa Water District and eventually to
sprawling corporate farms in the San Joaquin Valley.

"There were some very good politicians that wrote this in the dead of
night, stuck it in a (larger bill) and rammed it down the throat of the
San Joaquin Valley," said Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, one of four
congressional members from the valley to attend.

After the hearing, Radanovich said his water and power subcommittee of
the House Resources Committee might hold further hearings to consider
amendments to the Central Valley Project Improvement Act.

Tom Birmingham, general manager of the Westlands Water District, a
region of farms that runs 70 miles long and 15 miles wide in Fresno and
Kings counties, said his district's water supply is far less reliable
since the law was passed 14 years ago. He also questioned the use of
some of the nearly $500 million that farmers and other beneficiaries of
the project have paid under the act for environmental restoration.

But environmentalists, anglers and others say California's salmon and
bird populations would be worse off without the law. And, with several
open water species of Delta fish in a serious decline, they say this is
not the time to ease environmental protection laws.

The Central Valley Project was operating for 50 years before the law was
passed, noted Mindy McIntyre, a water policy specialist at the Planning
and Conservation League.

"Of course, you can't fix all of the damage caused by the CVP already,"
she said.

Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of
Fishermen's Associations, a commercial fishing organization, said the
legislation was the most important federal law for California's salmon
in the past 50 years.

In prepared testimony, Grader said the water delivery system prior to
the 1992 legislation "ignored, and harmed, the environment, fisheries,
drinking water quality, North Coast communities, indeed, most of
California. The CVPIA (legislation) represented a modest attempt to
restore some balance to the system."

Neither Miller nor Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Tracy, the Resources Committee
chairman, was able to attend Friday's hearing. But more hearings on the
Delta's problems are planned for the coming months, according to
committee spokesman Brian Kennedy.

Last month, the committee met in Stockton to hear from scientists about
why the Delta ecosystem appears to be unraveling. State and federal
scientists said they were still uncertain why several species of
open-water Delta fish have plummeted in recent years.

Next month, the committee is expected to examine fragile Delta levees
and the risk they pose to the state's water supply. That hearing is
expected to be in Washington, D.C.

The Delta is a source of drinking water for 23 million Californians and
millions of acres of farmland. A series of levee failures could foul
those water supplies because flooding into the subsided islands can suck
saltier water into the Delta from San Francisco Bay.

Scientists and water managers have become increasingly worried about the
aging levees. The Jones Tract flood in 2004 and the flooding of New
Orleans last year reinforced, in their minds, how devastating levee
failures can be.

Radanovich said Friday that the committee might also take a broad look
at CalFed, the troubled state and federal program. It was created to
protect the Delta environment and water supplies, but after more than
five years and $3 billion, it has little success to show.


Mike Taugher covers natural resources. Reach him at 925-943-8257 or
mtaugher at cctimes.com. 


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