[env-trinity] Feinstein's Water Bomb, by Matt Jenkins, High Country News, 2.12.2010

Byron Leydecker bwl3 at comcast.net
Fri Feb 12 15:14:00 PST 2010

Feinstein's Water Bomb
California senator takes aim at Delta fish protections 

News -    February 12, 2010  by Matt Jenkins 
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., is preparing to introduce a legislative
rider that would dramatically reduce Endangered Species Act protection for
salmon and other fish in California. The amendment would lift restrictions
on the amount of water that farmers can pump from the Sacramento-San Joaquin
river delta for the next two years. But it could also scuttle a delicately
negotiated effort to balance protections for endangered fish with the water
needs of farms and residents of Southern California.

Feinstein's effort comes as the state seems bound for the third year of an
emergency fishing ban to protect dwindling salmon runs, and as populations
of the Delta smelt and other fish continue to crash. And the move is a
remarkable turnaround:  Just four months ago, Feinstein denounced Sen. Jim
DeMint, R-South Carolina, for trying to introduce a similar amendment at the
behest of California water districts.

Feinstein's office declined repeated requests for details and comment
yesterday, but insiders familiar with the matter say that the Senator's
reversal is largely due to lobbying by the Westlands Water District. Last
year, after three years of drought, the federal government cut water
deliveries to many irrigation districts in the San Joaquin Valley.
Westlands, which is the largest district of its kind in the nation, was hit
the hardest, and saw its supply of water from the Delta dwindle to just 10
percent of the amount it holds contracts for. 

Westlands is "a coyote with its leg in a steel-jawed trap," says Jason
Peltier, the district's chief deputy manager. "Short-term, we're going to
pursue every right and legal avenue we have to protect ourselves." 

But pushing aside the federal pumping restrictions intended to protect
threatened smelt and endangered salmon would solve only part of the
district's problem. Fish-related restrictions account for just 15 to 20
percent of the cutbacks, according to an independent analysis by the Public
Policy Institute of California. The vast majority of the water shortage is
due to the drought. (For an in-depth exploration, see Breakdown
<http://www.hcn.org/issues/42.1/breakdown> ).
Westlands' battle against the pumping restrictions has nonetheless reached a
heart attack-inducing pace. Last week, the district led a confederation of
farm-water agencies in asking federal district judge Oliver Wanger to order
the federal government to run its Delta pumps at maximum capacity. That
helped capture the surge of water delivered by a massive winter storm, but
the reprieve lasted just six days before the government had to throttle down
its pumps. On Wednesday, Westlands and other water users asked Wanger to
order that those pumps be started up again, but the judge denied that
Then, on Thursday, Sen. Feinstein announced that she is considering an
amendment that will essentially do what Judge Wanger would not. Feinstein's
office has not released a final draft of the rider, which the Senator
intends to attach to the jobs bill now before Congress. Sources who helped
craft the amendment say that it won't be a flat-out waiver of Endangered
Species Act protections - but, for fish, the rider may be even worse than an
outright waiver. 
Under the current endangered-fish restrictions, the federal government  can
dial its pumps up or down within a specified range to respond to changing
conditions. Yet the government, Peltier says, has tended to be overly
conservative. "We have been hoping for the regulators to exercise some
discretion," he says. "But they just default to the most restrictive levels
Feinstein's rider would force federal officials to keep the pumps floored at
the highest levels currently permitted. Westlands spokeswoman Sarah Woolf
says that would allow water agencies to pump an extra million acre-feet of
water out of the Delta during the winter and spring. If that's true, it
would mean that, based on the Public Policy Institute of California's
analysis, Feinstein's rider would allow irrigation districts to pump twice
as much water from the Delta as they could were the current fish protections
totally eliminated.

As a sop to fishermen put out of work by the salmon-fishing ban, the rider
contains a provision for disaster assistance funds for fishing communities.
But Feinstein's announcement is threatening a much quieter, and potentially
more far-sighted, round of deal making that has been underway in Sacramento.
In that negotiation, which started three and a half years ago, water
agencies like Westlands and the Metropolitan Water District, which supplies
19 million people in Los Angeles and San Diego, invited state and federal
agencies and environmental groups to meet. The goal of that effort is an
agreement on the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, a long-term strategy that
would allow water pumping to continue for the next half-century in a way
that complies with the state and federal Endangered Species Acts. That
effort is now intended to create the operational blueprint for the sweeping
water package passed by the state legislature last fall. 
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's administration has been firm in its support of
the Bay Delta Conservation Plan and its commitment to seek solutions that
don't require suspending endangered species protections. Last September,
after Sen. DeMint introduced his amendment, Lester Snow - who was then
director of the California Department of Water Resources and is now
Schwarzenegger's resources secretary - wrote to Feinstein to "express our
strong opposition to any effort to set aside, suspend, or otherwise weaken
the Endangered Species Act." 
"The state is committed to working with stakeholders and our federal
partners in the Bay Delta Conservation Plan process to achieve the co-equal
goals of a healthy ecosystem and a reliable water supply," Snow wrote.
"Weakening or suspending (the Endangered Species Act) does not contribute to
this effort."
Now, however, faced with the specter of Feinstein introducing an amendment
that could weaken protections for fish, most of the environmental groups
that are participating in the Bay-Delta Conservation Plan - including the
Environmental Defense Fund, Defenders of Wildlife and the Bay Institute -
are contemplating a walkout. 
"The rider would effectively pull the rug out from under the Bay Delta
Conservation Plan," says Ann Hayden, a senior water resources analyst with
the Environmental Defense Fund. Ramped-up pumping would, she says, worsen
already bad conditions for salmon and smelt. "It would create an even bigger
hole that we have to dig our way out of."
If the environmental groups pull out of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan,
that could increase the water agencies' exposure to legal challenges later
this year, when they seek approval for the final plan from state and federal
regulators. "To the extent that fewer and fewer environmental interests are
involved in the process, it becomes more and more like a water-user wish
list," says Gary Bobker, the program director for the Bay Institute. "You're
inviting failure."
Last fall, in response to a request from a large farming corporation called
Paramount Farms, Sen. Feinstein asked the National Academy of Sciences to
carry out a pair of reviews of the science behind the current pumping
restrictions. The environmental groups participating in the Bay Delta
negotiations have stood behind the National Academy, which is scheduled to
release its first report in March. 
Now, however, with Sen. Feinstein introducing legislation that will revamp
pumping requirements before the first National Academies report is even
completed, and with water agencies inside the Bay Delta Conservation Plan
mounting numerous challenges to the Endangered Species Act on the outside,
the environmental groups that gambled on the plan are beginning to smell a
"We're being pushed into a corner," says Hayden. "We are losing this. We're
getting played."

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