WASHINGTON -- Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein's effort to divert more water to San Joaquin Valley farms hit a serious obstacle Thursday as 11 of her fellow congressional Democrats voiced their objections.
Citing potential dangers both to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and to the West Coast salmon industry, lawmakers from California, Oregon and Washington wrote Feinstein bluntly urging her to withdraw her controversial water proposal.
"I think it's a massive miscalculation," Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, said of Feinstein's plan in an interview. "It's destructive, both environmentally and politically."
The objections raised by Miller and his House colleagues mirror warnings by California salmon fishermen and environmentalists. The congressional objections carry special weight, though, because they hinder Feinstein's ability to accomplish her goal.
The escalating fight pits region against region, and some of California's most influential politicians against one another. It's already splitting fragile alliances among California water users, who in recent years have inched toward comity.
Late Thursday, Feinstein suggested to Miller that she might be willing to back down from the proposed legislation, if the Interior Department provides more irrigation on its own.
"If there can be some administrative action taken to take advantage of the recent bountiful rain and snow and provide reasonable water supplies this year, the legislation may not be necessary," Feinstein wrote late Thursday, adding that she will "remain open to ideas" offered by Miller.
With the support of farm organizations like Westlands Water District, Feinstein wants Congress to partially override two "biological opinions" that protect endangered species and govern water deliveries.
Feinstein's proposal would boost irrigation deliveries to Valley Westside farms to 40 percent or so of the farms' contractual allocation. Last year, a combination of drought and environmental restrictions meant some farmers only received 10 percent of their allocation.
"This is a last-ditch effort to provide an additional water supply," Fresno area Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, said approvingly.
Feinstein could not be reached Thursday, but in an earlier statement she cited the Valley's "unprecedented economic crisis" and her desire to "simply allow San Joaquin Valley farmers to plant, hire and harvest."
It's unclear whether Feinstein fully anticipated the uproar that's resulted. The rising tensions, though, are now obvious.
Feinstein's move "seriously jeopardizes" existing water coalitions and relations among colleagues, Rep. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Creek, said Thursday.
On Thursday, Costa retorted that other Democrats are being "entirely insensitive and crass" in their attitude toward Valley residents. The Democrats opposed to delivering more irrigation water want the Valley to "dry up and blow away," Costa added.
Miller, in turn, said Feinstein's plan would mean "water would go to the strongest."
He said Congress should await a National Research Council study on the biological opinions, due in March. The scientific review was originally undertaken at Feinstein's behest.
"That may provide information that's useful," Garamendi noted.
The newly formed congressional lineup opposing Feinstein is hefty enough to call into question Feinstein's ability to overcome it.
Miller is one of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's key lieutenants, and a former chair of what's now called the House Natural Resources Committee.
Another lawmaker unhappy with Feinstein, Rep. Norm Dicks of Washington, chairs the powerful House subcommittee responsible for the Interior Department's $12 billion annual budget.
The chair of the House water and power subcommittee, Rep. Grace Napolitano, D-Pomona, has previously objected to Feinstein's efforts.
Illustrating the regional fissures, three Democratic lawmakers who represent portions of the Sacramento Valley -- Garamendi and Reps. Mike Thompson and Doris Matsui -- likewise oppose Feinstein's efforts on behalf of the San Joaquin Valley.
Feinstein, in turn, is a longtime force to be reckoned with on California water disputes. Most recently, she was instrumental in pushing through legislation that supports San Joaquin River restoration efforts.
"Sen. Feinstein, to her credit, has taken the time to become knowledgeable about this issue," Costa said.
On past water issues, Feinstein has traditionally combined the role of facilitator and enforcer: getting all parties into a room and making sure they cut a deal. With the new water amendment, she explicitly allied herself with farm interests.
"Your draft amendment is inconsistent with your record of pursuing compromise solutions to environmental conflicts," the new letter to Feinstein states.
The 11 lawmakers further warn Feinstein that her plan would "drive California's and much of Oregon's salmon to extinction" and threaten "thousands of jobs." Feinstein's draft water amendment includes an unspecified amount of funding to assist salmon fishermen. She has suggested adding the water delivery amendment to a Senate jobs bill, which could be considered as early as next week.