ENDANGERED SPECIES:

Feinstein urges outside review of Calif. water restrictions

SAN FRANCISCO -- Sen. Dianne Feinstein is pressing the Obama administration to take a step back from California's drought emergency to authorize a third-party scientific review of two federal biological opinions that restrict water deliveries to farmers in the Central Valley.

In a recent letter to the secretaries of Commerce and Interior, the California Democrat requested an immediate National Academy of Sciences study of the bi-ops, which many in the agriculture industry blame for shutting down water flows from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and adding to economic woes in the state. The bi-ops were triggered by the Endangered Species Act to protect salmon and delta smelt in the sprawling delta region.

"The National Academy of Sciences, through the National Research Council (the operating arm of the academy), is the only body whose views will be respected by all the relevant parties as a truly independent voice," Feinstein wrote.

Attached to Feinstein's request was a letter from Stewart Resnick, a billionaire from Southern California who owns and operates some of the state's largest farming operations. Resnick's letter slams Obama officials for rejecting attempts by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) to prod Interior and Commerce into rewriting, or "reconsulting," the bi-ops.

"In a blatant attempt to deflect scrutiny of the federal wildlife agencies' roles in exacerbating the state's severe drought, the [agencies] minimized the very real impact of regulatory-induced water shortages and misstated the law regarding reinitiation of consultation," Resnick wrote.

Resnick went on to cite "sloppy science" at the federal level and argued for a fast six-month review by NAS.

Schwarzenegger had asked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service to reconsider the bi-ops. But Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, in a Sept. 3 letter to the governor, said a reconsultation is required "only where new scientific information has become available."

"The FWS and NMFS determinations were completed within the last 12 months, and we are not aware of any new scientific information or infrastructure or operational changes that would allow for a 'reconsultation,'" the secretaries wrote.

The dueling letters highlight the severity of the water shortages as well as the sensitive political atmosphere surrounding the ESA-imposed restrictions. Late last week, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack declared 50 of California's 58 counties federal drought disaster areas, but his declaration -- which makes emergency loans available to hard-hit farmers -- stopped short of the more comprehensive federal assistance sought by many in the state (E&ENews PM, Sept. 22).

The Feinstein request also comes as the national media has begun turning its attention to the complicated web of water-supply problems facing the agriculture industry in the San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys. Last week, FOX News host Sean Hannity filmed his cable television show on location in Fresno County and charged the Obama administration with putting environmental interests above those of the farmers.

Environmentalists have since shot back at Hannity for, in their view, spreading misinformation about the crisis. They say Hannity and others have overestimated the amount of water that has been placed off-limits by court-ordered bi-ops meant to protect endangered delta smelt and salmon.

Some environmentalists also had tough words for Feinstein and questioned why the senator chose to attach Resnick's letter to her request. They noted that Resnick, a prominent campaign contributor, is involved in several lawsuits challenging the water restrictions and has much to gain by decreasing the limits.

"It's pretty unusual for a member of Congress to tie a letter like that to a Cabinet secretary," said Glen Spain, of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations. "[Resnick] is angling to try to second-guess the bi-ops to get more leverage in court."

Spain, whose group represents commercial fishing interests, added that the bi-ops have been peer-reviewed and that nothing has changed of late to necessitate a further review. "This idea of going back and getting a second or third or fourth opinion is just an effort to get new answers," he said.

Feinstein's office shot back that the NAS review might help cut through the confusion created by the 13 lawsuits that have been filed against the bi-ops.

"The NAS study could very well uphold the pumping restrictions, or it could determine that they are not based on the best available science. There is no predetermined outcome," said Laura Wilkinson, a spokeswoman for Feinstein. "But Senator Feinstein believes that an independent review is an appropriate step and should satisfy any lingering questions about whether the federal government has done its due diligence."

A spokeswoman at Interior said the agency is reviewing Feinstein's request.

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