Sen. Dianne Feinstein has targeted the Senate jobs bill in a bid to guarantee more water for struggling farmers in California's San Joaquin Valley regardless of restrictions imposed by the Endangered Species Act.
Feinstein's office yesterday announced plans to attach a rider to the jobs bill, calling it the "Emergency Temporary Water Supply" amendment. It would seek to ensure that farmers and water districts get between 38 percent and 40 percent of their normal allocations. A final draft of the amendment is yet to be written, her office said.
Allocations have dropped to as low as 10 percent recently because of a three-year drought and restrictions on pumping water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta system that are intended to protect chinook salmon and delta smelt, both of which are federally protected species under ESA.
"I believe we need a fair compromise that will respect the Endangered Species Act while recognizing the fact that people in California's breadbasket face complete economic ruin without help," said Feinstein (D-Calif.) in a statement.
The rider tactic comes as the fight over Northern California's water continues to simmer in federal court. This past week has seen Judge Oliver Wanger of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California issue several rulings related to the pumping restrictions, resulting in his denial of a restraining order attempt by the farmers that would have suspended a biological opinion on the smelt to open water pumps on the south end of the delta to maximum capacity.
Dead smelt have been salvaged this week at the pumps, prompting the Fish and Wildlife Service to order the flow restrictions that went into effect yesterday under the biological opinion. The restraining order would have blocked those limits from taking effect for 14 days (Greenwire, Feb. 10).
Environmental groups were critical of Feinstein's proposal, saying it would be a disaster for fishing communities that depend on a healthy delta ecosystem for their catch. Commercial fishing for salmon has been canceled for two years running and may be restricted again this spring.
"It's a misplaced response to the situation," said Cynthia Koehler, California water legislative director for the Environmental Defense Fund. "The data show that this legislative tinkering with the salmon protections is far more likely to worsen the jobs crisis in the fishing industry than it is to address the Central Valley's economic problems, which are due to many other factors."
Koehler called for the Endangered Species Act pumping restrictions to remain in place while stakeholders look for a long-term solution to the state's water woes.
Also casting a shadow over the tug-of-war is an ongoing National Academy of Sciences review of the science behind both the salmon and smelt biological opinions. Results of that study are expected this spring.
The restrictions that went into effect yesterday will scale back flows to negative 4,000 cubic feet per second, from negative 5,100 cubic feet per second. Federal scientists plan to continue monitoring closely for more smelt salvage and could decide to suspend the pumping restrictions if the situation improves.
Sullivan reported from San Francisco.