Three water crises coming to a boil

WASHINGTON -- San Joaquin Valley lawmakers want a regional water plan, but it might come too late for more immediate problems involving irrigation drainage, the San Joaquin River and the tiny delta smelt.

Tuesday, Californians pushed for $1 million in federal funds to draft a water plan spanning the eight-county region from Stockton to Bakersfield. A Fresno-based California Water Institute would coordinate the study.

"We are in a water crisis," warned Rep. Jim Costa, a Fresno Democrat, "and we have been living on borrowed time."

The Bush administration said Tuesday that it opposes Costa's water study bill, in part because of its cost. The bill's long-term prospects remain unclear. Even if approved, the study would take an estimated two years.

Meanwhile, three crises are boiling over:

Restoring the San Joaquin River. A $500 million bill designed to restore salmon to the river below Friant Dam is now at a crucial juncture, attorney Dan Dooley warned irrigation districts last week.

Behind the scenes, some farmers and at least one water district are actively resisting the bill.

Saving the delta smelt. A recent judicial decision cutting water shipments south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta aids the vulnerable fish, but shrinks water deliveries by as much as one-third. This decision "could not have come at a worse time," 13 House members from California caution in a new letter urging a congressional hearing.

Resolving irrigation drainage on the valley's west side. Farmers and environmentalists continue to meet at the behest of Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Under judicial pressure, they are seeking a way to get rid of accumulating irrigation drainage that threatens valley soil.

Cost concerns administration

The policy disputes are separate, but also help create what Costa termed a "perfect storm," where natural droughts combine with judicial and political decisions to shrink water supplies.

"Water in the San Joaquin Valley is a competitive item," added Sargeant Green, manager of the Westside Resource Conservation District, "and anytime you have competition, you have adversity."

Green is a consultant to the California Water Institute, affili- ated with California State University, Fresno. The institute previously has been offered $1 million in state funds to coordinate a "comprehensive integrated regional water management plan," which Costa said would focus on issues such as water quality, water supply and flood control.

The Bush administration is already "addressing the need targeted by this proposed study," said Robert Quint, acting deputy commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation. Quint added that the agency has "concerns" about the $1 million cost, as the money might be siphoned from other bureau activities.

Chowchilla board resisting bill

Money likewise complicates the San Joaquin River restoration legislation, perhaps the most pressing of the current challenges.

Negotiators originally set a Dec. 31, 2006, deadline for passing the river bill.

The bill would settle a 1988 lawsuit by environmentalists unhappy over how Friant Dam's irrigation diversions dried up the San Joaquin River's historic salmon runs. House budget rules require that lawmakers offset about $240 million of the bill's estimated cost.

Frustrated negotiators have considered everything from tapping an oil-and-gas fund or a fund used for cleaning up nu- clear power plants to accelerating the dam construction payments by Friant-area farmers.

They remain stymied.

The Chowchilla Water District, after assenting to the river settlement a year ago, now declares it is "actively" recruiting resistance to the current bill. The Chowchilla board cites "immense funding problems" as well as water supply concerns.

Defenders of the settlement insist it is still better than letting a federal judge make water decisions.

"The settlement negotiated is far superior to any likely outcomes of litigation," Dooley wrote the Friant water districts in a Sept. 17 letter marked "confidential."

Bee Washington Bureau reporter Michael Doyle can be reached at mdoyle@mcclatchydc.com or 202-383-0006.

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