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Obama calls for new look at delta

Published online on Wednesday, Sep. 30, 2009

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The nation’s most respected scientists should re-examine the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and controversial measures now protecting it, the Obama administration declared Wednesday.

In a nod to Central Valley residents and their increasingly angry congressional allies, the administration agreed to seek an independent review by the National Academy of Sciences. The study announced at an often-heated public hearing Wednesday morning would include a search for alternative environmental protections that might demand less sacrifice from farmers.

In addition to the proposed National Academy of Sciences study, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar urged Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the California Legislature to convene a special session on the state’s water policies.

State legislators who attended Wednesday’s hearing said negotiators already are meeting privately in Sacramento and a special session will be convened if a water package can be agreed upon.

Schwarzenegger, who has heard the call for a special session before, didn’t address it in a statement issued by his office late Wednesday. Instead, he welcomed the federal study and renewed his request, first made in June, for federal disaster aid for Fresno County.

The administration had hoped that Wednesday’s half-day hearing would reassure Californians that their water is important. “This is a huge priority for the president and for me,” Salazar said. “We will do our part.”

Salazar’s promise, though, did not completely calm the Californians from both parties and many perspectives who are vehemently demanding more help with the state’s water shortage.Many among the 100 participants said the time for talk is over.

“Our farmworkers are hurting,” Orange Cove Mayor Victor Lopez shouted. “How in the hell can you pay your rent? How are you going to pay your mortgage? We just keep talking and talking."

The study proposed Wednesday doesn’t promise quick action — Salazar said he expects it will take six months or so to look anew at two “biological opinions” used in protecting endangered species like smelt and salmon.

Taken together, the two biological opinions by the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service could cut irrigation deliveries by up to 30%. The sacrificed water is needed to protect habitat and several different fish covered by the Endangered Species Act.

“At least some of the science is highly questionable,” said Ron Jacobsma, general manager of the Friant Water Authority. Salazar said he still stands by the biological opinions and he dismissed the idea of reopening the formal “consultation” process through which federal agencies make environmental decisions. Democrat Sen. Dianne Feinstein, by contrast, favors adjusting the decision-making if circumstances warrant.“The government is not infallible,” Feinstein said.

After the hearing, Feinstein told the San Francisco Chronicle that she is planning one of the biggest pieces of legislation she’s ever attempted, a Delta Restoration Act that would fix the region once and for all.

She also said she favors waiving the Endangered Species Act to jump-start water deliveries.

Democrat Rep. Dennis Cardoza of Merced said, “We are long past the point of more committees,” and noted that a previous Obama administration California “drought task force” seemed to simply evaporate.

Democrat Rep. Jim Costa of Fresno complained vehemently that the Obama administration has shortchanged California water projects, including a “Two Gates” proposal in the delta now expected to cost upwards of $45 million. Costa called the state’s three-year drought “our Katrina.”

Republican Rep. George Radanovich of Mariposa voiced the “angst” felt by his constituents, while Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, angrily denounced the “radical extreme environmentalists” he says are allied with Bay Area lawmakers.

For now, the next step is for the National Academy of Sciences to take up the issue. It’s an independent agency, conducting studies through the National Research Council, but it almost always complies with requests from cabinet-level departments.

Salazar also said that a new “memorandum of understanding” would bind six federal agencies in a collaborative California effort. The consolidated effort will now include a new “Bay-Delta Leadership Committee,” co-led by the Interior Department and the Council on Environmental Quality.

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