You are hereGOP trying to kill Delta restrictions meant to preserve salmon, other fish

GOP trying to kill Delta restrictions meant to preserve salmon, other fish

Restrictions on Delta water supplies meant to protect salmon, Delta smelt and other fish would be eliminated by language that congressional Republicans have put into the government funding bill.

The action would increase water sent to Central Valley farmers and possibly other users.

The 359-page bill, which is expected to come up for a vote Wednesday or Thursday, is needed to keep the federal government running after March 4.

House GOP leaders said the bill includes $100 billion in spending cuts needed to reduce the budget deficit.

Inserted are measures to eliminate rules that federal biologists have created over the past couple of years in response to crashing fish populations. The bill also would block an effort to restore the San Joaquin River.

Salmon fishers and environmentalists decried the legislation. However, the general manager for the nation's largest irrigation district said that, if passed, the bill could significantly improve its water supplies this year.

"It would be safe to say that if the (restrictions) were not implemented, our water supply would be 65 to 70 percent," said Tom Birmingham, general manager of the Westlands Water District. It is now slated to get about 45 percent of its contract amount.

Several Delta fish populations have declined rapidly over the past decade, including Delta smelt, a small fish that some scientists say could be nearing extinction, and a commercially valuable salmon run

that was closed for two of the past three years.

"We've just come through the three worst years in history for salmon businesses, families and communities due to the type of water management the House is now trying to force on us," said Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations. "If the Senate doesn't block these efforts, our salmon will die and so will the tens of thousands of jobs salmon provide."

With the GOP takeover of the House of Representatives in November, many observers expected that the politically charged conflict in the Delta, which Westlands and others have characterized as a fight between fish and farmers, would be a target for conservative critics of endangered species rules.

Birmingham said he was expecting legislation similar to that introduced late Friday, but he expected it in a separate bill -- and not tucked into the spending bill.

He said he was told Friday by Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, that the provisions would be added to the spending bill. The measure was inserted by House leadership at congressman's request, Nunes spokesman Andrew House said.

Specifically, the bill would:

·  Overturn regulations that limit the degree to which pumping rates can reverse the flow of water in two south Delta channels;

·  Cease requiring flows to reduce salinity during the fall months; and

·  Nullify a measure that limits pumping in April and May to benefit San Joaquin River steelhead.

"That one is really a killer for us," Birmingham said.

One environmentalist speculated that Westlands' gains could come at the expense of other water agencies in the Bay Area and Southern California.

That is because Westlands relies on pumps operated by the federal government. If federal pumps are exempted from federal environmental laws, the state's endangered species law still would require customers of the neighboring state-owned pumps to make up the difference, said Barry Nelson, a water policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Those customers include water agencies in the Bay Area, Southern California, Central Coast and Kern County.

"This really is a half-baked proposal with far-reaching implications," Nelson said. "It would cripple the ability of (state and federal) agencies to work together and develop solutions."

Sen. Dianne Feinstein in a statement Monday agreed that gains for Westlands could come at the expense of urban Southern California and others.

Feinstein, a key player in California water issues, is in a pivotal spot because the final spending bill will have to be agreed upon by both the House and the Senate. As chairman of the Senate Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee, she will have an influential voice in the Senate on water.

"These are complex problems, and they require nuanced solutions. These broad-brush strokes do nothing to help us," Feinstein said.

On Saturday, state Resources Secretary John Laird sent a letter to Feinstein asking her to oppose efforts to include Delta language in the Senate's version of the bill.

Mike Taugher covers the environment. Contact him at 925-943-8257.

Tucked into 359-page federal spending bill are provisions that would set aside rules meant to protect Delta fish. The bill would:

·  Overturn limits on pumping that reverses the flow of water in two south Delta channels.

·  Overturn requirements that more water flow into San Francisco Bay to flush salt from the Delta.

·  Prohibit going through with a settlement intended to restore the periodically dry San Joaquin River.


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