Feinstein's Water Bomb

California senator takes aim at Delta fish protections

 

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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • NOVA SCOTIA OCEAN FRONT
    Camp or Build on 2+ acres in Guysborough. FSBO. $36,000 US firm. Laurie's phone: 585-226-2993 EST.
  • TECHNICAL ADVISOR TO THE GOOD NEIGHBOR AGREEMENT
    Northern Plains Resource Council seeks an independent contractor to implement the Good Neighbor Agreement (GNA) between local communities and the Sibanye-Stillwater Mining Company in Montana....
  • POEM+ NEWSLETTER
    Start each month with a poem in your inbox by signing up for Taylor S. Winchell's monthly Poem+ Newsletter. No frills. No news. No politics....
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), Utah's largest conservation organization, has an immediate opening in its Salt Lake City office for a staff attorney. SUWA's...
  • DEVELOPMENT & COMMUNICATION SPECIALIST
    Idaho Walk Bike Alliance seeks a lover of bicycling, walking, and all modes of active transportation who willingly puts the car in the garage and...
  • COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR
    Friends of Inyo - the Communications Director is a full-time permanent position that reports to the Executive Director and utilizes communication strategies and production skills...
  • INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS EDITOR
    High Country News seeks an editor to oversee the work of our award-winning Indigenous Affairs Desk. This individual will lead a team of passionate journalists...
  • HIKING TO THE EDGE:
    Confronting Cancer in Rocky Mountain National Park. Poetry and photos on survival thinking. E-book and paperback available at Amazon.com.
  • OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation has grown into America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more than...
  • IPLC RIGHTS AND EQUITY PROGRAM ASSOCIATE
    A LITTLE ABOUT US Founded in 1951, the Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR FUTURE WEST
    Future West seeks an executive director to lead this dynamic organization into the future. Based in Bozeman, MT this well-respected nonprofit provides communities in the...
  • PART-TIME EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Mitchell Museum of the American Indian Location: Evanston, IL Salary Range: $45,000 @ 24 hours per week. send resume: [email protected] www.mitchellmuseum.org
  • COMMUNICATIONS LEAD
    Southeast Alaska Conservation Council is hiring! Who We Are: The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) is a small grassroots nonprofit based out of Juneau, Alaska,...
  • SENIOR POLICY ADVISOR
    Since 1989, The Nature Conservancy in Alaska has been doing work you can believe in protecting the lands and waters that all life depends on....
  • OUTDOOR PROGRAM - ASSISTANT DIRECTOR
    St. Lawrence University seeks to fill the position of Assistant Director in the Outdoor Program. To view the complete position description, including minimum qualifications required,...
  • PUBLIC LANDS DIRECTOR
    Job Announcement Conserve Southwest Utah is seeking a dedicated advocate for conservation and public lands Public Lands Director a "make a difference" position Conserve Southwest...
  • FOR SALE
    Yellowstone Llamas Successful Yellowstone NP concession Flexible packages
  • WE'RE LOOKING FOR LEADERS!
    As we celebrate 50 years of great Western journalism, High Country News is looking for a few new board members to help set a course...
  • WIND RIVER WRITERS AND PHOTOGRAPHERS RETREAT BY THE NATIONAL BIGHORN SHEEP CENTER
    Enhance your writing or photography skills with world-class instructors in the beautiful Wind River Mountains. All skill levels welcome. Continuing education credits available.
  • EARTH CRUISER FX FOR SALE
    Overland Vehicle for travel on or off road. Fully self contained. Less than 41,000 miles. Recently fully serviced Located in Redmond, OR $215'000.