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
  • LAND & CABIN ON CO/ UT LINE
    18 ac w/small solar ready cabin. Off grid, no well. Great RV location. Surrounded by state wildlife area and nat'l parks.
  • MANAGER PERMACULTURE LANDSCAPE CONTRACTOR
    Permaculture / Landscape Company Manager / Site Lead Red Ant Works, Inc. - 20+ year landscape construction and horticultural care company seeks manager and site...
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field seminars for adults in natural and human history of the Colorado Plateau with lodge, river trip and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    San Juan Citizens Alliance is looking for a passionate, dynamic, organized, and technology-savvy communications professional to help grow our membership and presence in the Four...
  • ENERGY AND CLIMATE PROGRAM ASSOCIATE
    San Juan Citizens Alliance seeks an Energy and Climate Program Associate to focus on public outreach, education and organizing to advance campaigns to mitigate climate...
  • REAL ESTATE SPECIALIST
    This position provides professional real estate services and is responsible for managing and completing real estate projects utilizing a project management database that is designed...
  • WILDFIRE MITIGATION SPECIALIST
    The Wildfire Mitigation Specialist is responsible for delivering wildfire risk mitigation information, recommendations and programmatic resources to wildland urban interface homeowners, community members and partners....
  • DEVELOPMENT POSITIONS
    Thorne Nature Experience is hiring for a Development Director and Senior Individual Giving Manager. Individuals will work collaboratively with Thorne's Executive Director to develop and...
  • SENIOR PROGRAM MANAGER, LANDSCAPE CONSERVATION & ENERGY
    The National Parks Conservation Association, a 100-year-old nonprofit advocacy organization and the nation's leading voice for national parks seeks a Senior Program Manager, Landscape Conservation...
  • BACKCOUNTRY AND FRONTCOUNTRY STEWARDSHIP CREW MEMBERS
    The San Juan Mountains Association (SJMA) is hiring a crew of ambassadors to work in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service to educate visitors on...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, NATURAL HISTORY INSTITUTE
    The Executive Director is the chief executive officer of the Natural History Institute (NHI). The Executive Director has broad authority to lead and manage the...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR AT FRIENDS OF CEDAR MESA
    - The Land, History, and People of the Bears Ears Region - The Bears Ears and Cedar Mesa region is one of the most beautiful,...
  • SENIOR DEVELOPMENT ASSOCIATE
    Greater Yellowstone Coalition seeks a Senior Development Associate to coordinate the organization's individual giving program. The position description is available at http://greateryellowstone.org/careers Please email a...
  • TRAIL CREW TECHNICAL ADVISORS
    SEEKING TALENTED TRAIL CREWLEADERS The Pacific Crest Trail Association, headquartered in Sacramento, California ,is dedicated to protecting, preserving and promoting the Pacific Crest National Scenic...
  • ENDANGERED SPECIES POLICY ADVOCATE
    Are you a Guardian for wildlife, great and small, across the West? WildEarth Guardians (Guardians) seeks a full-time Endangered Species Policy Advocate (Advocate) for the...
  • WESTERN NATIVE SEED
    Native plant seeds for the Western US. Trees, shrubs, grasses, wildflowers and regional mixes. Call or email for free price list. 719-942-3935. [email protected] or visit...
  • THE LAND DESK: A PUBLIC LANDS NEWSLETTER
    Western lands and communities--in context--delivered to your inbox 3x/week. From award-winning journalist and HCN contributor Jonathan P. Thompson. $6/month; $60/year.
  • CONSERVATIONIST? IRRIGABLE LAND?
    Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details: http://seeds.ojaidigital.net.
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • ONE WILL: THREE WIVES
    by Edith Tarbescu. "One Will: Three Wives" is packed with a large array of interesting suspects, all of whom could be a murderer ... a...