Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., is preparing to introduce a legislative rider that would dramatically reduce Endangered Species Act protection for salmon and other fish in California. The amendment would lift restrictions on the amount of water that farmers can pump from the Sacramento-San Joaquin river delta for the next two years. But it could also scuttle a delicately negotiated effort to balance protections for endangered fish with the water needs of farms and residents of Southern California.

Feinstein’s effort comes as the state seems bound for the third year of an emergency fishing ban to protect dwindling salmon runs, and as populations of the Delta smelt and other fish continue to crash. And the move is a remarkable turnaround:  Just four months ago, Feinstein denounced Sen. Jim DeMint, R-South Carolina, for trying to introduce a similar amendment at the behest of California water districts.

Feinstein's office declined repeated requests for details and comment yesterday, but insiders familiar with the matter say that the Senator’s reversal is largely due to lobbying by the Westlands Water District. Last year, after three years of drought, the federal government cut water deliveries to many irrigation districts in the San Joaquin Valley. Westlands, which is the largest district of its kind in the nation, was hit the hardest, and saw its supply of water from the Delta dwindle to just 10 percent of the amount it holds contracts for.

Westlands is "a coyote with its leg in a steel-jawed trap," says Jason Peltier, the district’s chief deputy manager. “Short-term, we’re going to pursue every right and legal avenue we have to protect ourselves.”

But pushing aside the federal pumping restrictions intended to protect threatened smelt and endangered salmon would solve only part of the district’s problem. Fish-related restrictions account for just 15 to 20 percent of the cutbacks, according to an independent analysis by the Public Policy Institute of California. The vast majority of the water shortage is due to the drought. (For an in-depth exploration, see Breakdown).
   
Westlands' battle against the pumping restrictions has nonetheless reached a heart attack-inducing pace. Last week, the district led a confederation of farm-water agencies in asking federal district judge Oliver Wanger to order the federal government to run its Delta pumps at maximum capacity. That helped capture the surge of water delivered by a massive winter storm, but the reprieve lasted just six days before the government had to throttle down its pumps. On Wednesday, Westlands and other water users asked Wanger to order that those pumps be started up again, but the judge denied that motion.
   
Then, on Thursday, Sen. Feinstein announced that she is considering an amendment that will essentially do what Judge Wanger would not. Feinstein’s office has not released a final draft of the rider, which the Senator intends to attach to the jobs bill now before Congress. Sources who helped craft the amendment say that it won’t be a flat-out waiver of Endangered Species Act protections — but, for fish, the rider may be even worse than an outright waiver.
   
Under the current endangered-fish restrictions, the federal government  can dial its pumps up or down within a specified range to respond to changing conditions. Yet the government, Peltier says, has tended to be overly conservative. "We have been hoping for the regulators to exercise some discretion," he says. "But they just default to the most restrictive levels possible."
   
Feinstein's rider would force federal officials to keep the pumps floored at the highest levels currently permitted. Westlands spokeswoman Sarah Woolf says that would allow water agencies to pump an extra million acre-feet of water out of the Delta during the winter and spring. If that's true, it would mean that, based on the Public Policy Institute of California’s analysis, Feinstein's rider would allow irrigation districts to pump twice as much water from the Delta as they could were the current fish protections totally eliminated.