Bill would ease San Joaquin Valley water swaps

WASHINGTON -- San Joaquin Valley farmers could swap water more easily under a bill floated Thursday before a Senate panel.

The four-page water transfer legislation is far less ambitious than an $11 billion water bond package approved Wednesday by the California Legislature. For now, though, it may reflect the leading federal contribution to addressing the state's water woes.

"The Valley can't wait for a long-term solution," Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein said. "The one thing we can do now, in the short term, is facilitate (water) transfers."

Feinstein and Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer jointly introduced the water transfer bill considered Thursday by the water and power panel of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. A related bill was introduced last month by Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno.

Other, more ambitious bills and amendments have been introduced this Congress concerning California water. Some, for instance, would temporarily exempt Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta pumping operations from restrictions imposed under the Endangered Species Act.

And in the wake of the California Legislature's latest water commitment, lawmakers and D.C.-based lobbyists Thursday were starting to mull what additional federal steps might be warranted.

As an apparently modest step, the water transfer bill does not excite much controversy. San Francisco attorney Hal Candee, who formerly represented the Natural Resources Defense Council during protracted negotiations over restoring the San Joaquin River, raised some concerns but said he was "supportive of the goals" of the bill.

"This is about getting water where it's needed, when it's needed," Boxer said. "It's common sense."

The lawmakers' intention is to smooth the transfer of water among irrigation districts south of the Delta or, as Feinstein put it, "to ensure that willing sellers are not kept from willing buyers by red tape." The bill does this, in part, by directing Interior Department officials to complete under "the most expedited basis practicable" all necessary environmental reviews.

The bill further pressures the Interior Department by requiring regular updates on how the Central Valley water transfers are faring, and it lifts several limitations that a 1992 law imposed on the water that an irrigation district can transfer.

The new proposals have been championed by farmers south of the Delta, whose federal water deliveries have been cut to only 10 percent of their allocation.

"Under these increasingly dire circumstances, we cannot survive without exercising all available tools," testified Martin McIntyre, general manager of the San Luis Water District.

The federal Bureau of Reclamation has estimated that the new bill's provisions might free up an additional 250,000 to 300,000 acre-feet of water for easier transfer among irrigation districts.

This year, under existing rules, the federal Bureau of Reclamation has overseen the transfer of about 600,000 acre-feet of water among state and federal water contractors. The Bureau of Reclamation supports the new water transfer bill but wants some minor technical changes.

California lawmakers succeeded earlier this year in tacking a similar but narrower water transfer bill onto an energy and water funding package signed last week by President Barack Obama. The earlier provision specifically eases transfers between irrigation districts served by Friant Dam and other districts south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

The new bill does not limit itself to Friant-area irrigation districts.