WASHINGTON — Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein's controversial bid to divert more water to San Joaquin Valley farms has prompted furious maneuvering but no agreement.
Behind the scenes, negotiators are swapping ideas. In public, though, the Senate on Wednesday approved a streamlined jobs bill that excluded all amendments, including Feinstein's water proposal.
"I am trying to work something out," Feinstein said in an interview late Wednesday afternoon. "It is a work in progress. It is not complete."
Feinstein pleased farmers and angered environmentalists, salmon fishermen and some congressional Democrats last week with plans for rewriting environmental protections in order to boost irrigation deliveries. She initially suggested adding the water amendment to the jobs bill.
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The Senate approved the $15 billion jobs bill by a 70-28 margin, with no amendments of any kind permitted.
Now, the proposed water amendment remains in draft form while the idea of it has goaded members of California's fractious water community to start negotiating. It's a multidimensional dilemma. Farmers want more water. Fishermen fear losing what they have, and federal environmental laws mandate protections for species including salmon and the tiny delta smelt.
"Obviously, there are a lot of phone calls taking place," Feinstein said. "A lot of people are talking."
In a lengthy, private teleconference Tuesday night, representatives of farm, environmental and congressional interests hashed out water delivery and environmental protection options. The hagglers were preparing to convene again for a follow-up Wednesday night.
Adding pressure, and showcasing the high stakes, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar quietly invited California's two senators and a number of House members to meet late this afternoon. The unusual, closed-door session will occur just as the Interior Department prepares a crucial water allocation decision.
"I hope this shows (Salazar) understands how important (this) is," said Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced.
The Interior Department's Bureau of Reclamation typically makes its initial water allocation announcement by the end of February. This year's initial allocation is now expected to take place Friday.
Farmers got 10% last year
Last February, squeezed by drought and environmental restrictions, farmers south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta initially were told they would receive no federal irrigation water. Eventually, they received 10 percent of their historic deliveries. Feinstein billed her amendment as intended to ensure deliveries reached up to 40 percent.
In order to accomplish that, though, the amendment would take the aggressive step of legislatively overriding two "biological opinions" crafted by the Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service. Critics worry that having politicians second-guess scientists sets a bad precedent.
"Salmon may not have high-paid lobbyists like the corporate agricultural interests in the Central Valley, but they are critical to our coastal economy," Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, said last week.
'Rush to judgment'
Feinstein subsequently offered to meet with Miller, though she expressed some frustration Wednesday that some of her congressional colleagues were engaged in a "rush to judgment" over an amendment that hasn't yet been publicly offered.
Short of passing the amendment, which could prove tough, the pressing question now is how much additional water federal officials might deliver on their own. Feinstein said her amendment won't be necessary if the administration acts, but there are likely to be disagreements over how much discretion federal officials have while acting within the constraints of the Endangered Species Act.
"It's certainly our hope that the secretary of interior will solve this problem without our having to engage in a legislative fight," Westlands Water District General Manager Tom Birmingham said.
Birmingham and Westlands farmer Jean Sagouspe were working Capitol Hill hard Wednesday, meeting with lawmakers and potential allies such as Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas. Birmingham, vividly expressing his anger with environmentalists, predicted the amendment will succeed if the Obama administration doesn't deliver enough water.
Bee Washington Bureau reporter Michael Doyle can be reached at email@example.com or 202-383-0006.