California's San Joaquin Valley lawmakers again introduce water legislation

WASHINGTON -- San Joaquin Valley lawmakers on Tuesday again voiced their discontent over the region's dry spell, this time by introducing a new bill to review several key water-delivery decisions.

The legislation, authored by Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, would reconsider decisions that have steered more water toward Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta protection and away from Valley farmers. Cardoza's bill follows up on similar, unsuccessful efforts made in both the House and Senate.

"It is both unfair and illogical to blame our farmers for all of the environmental problems facing the Delta ecosystem," Cardoza said.

Cardoza introduced his bill with the support of Reps. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, and George Radanovich, R-Mariposa. Another Valley lawmaker who has championed similar measures, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, was not invited to join the bill introduction.

Nunes has periodically clashed with his colleagues over past Valley water measures, though they have shared many of the same goals.

All of the efforts, including Cardoza's latest bill introduced Tuesday, are built around the controversial argument that environmental decisions are primarily to blame for farmers' water woes.

"Prioritizing the rights of fish above the rights of people have brought farmers to the brink of extinction during an already difficult economic environment," Radanovich said in a statement.

Substantively, the new bill challenges decisions designed to protect plants, animals and habitat covered under the Endangered Species Act. In some cases, federal judges -- including at least one appointed by a Republican president -- have directed that more aggressive steps be taken to protect the species.

Shutdowns of pumps in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta accounted for about one-quarter of the reductions in irrigation deliveries this year, federal officials say. A protracted drought accounts for the rest of the shortfall.

The new bill would replace two "biological opinions" that protect species including the Delta smelt, steelhead and Chinook salmon. Instead, federal agencies would have to draft "reasonable and prudent" alternatives that protect the species while keeping farm water delivery reductions to a minimum.

Politically, efforts to outflank the environmental law face resistance both from the Obama administration and from key allies of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Earlier this year, for instance, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar stressed in California that he did not intend to convene a special committee -- the so-called "God Squad" -- that can override standard environmental protections.

Symbolically, though, the new bill adds to the congressional chorus that could build pressure for some kind of action. In a related vein, Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein successfully urged Salazar to request a National Academy of Sciences study of the California water situation.

The National Academy of Sciences study could be formally commissioned within several weeks. Proponents hope it leads to changes in water deliveries.