Central Valley

U.S. Senate approves public lands bill to help Central Valley

WASHINGTON – The Senate on Thursday approved a grab-bag public lands bill that’s supposed to save the San Joaquin River, store Madera County groundwater and secure Sierra Nevada wilderness.

Weighing in at 1,296 pages, the public lands bill was stuffed with more than enough goodies to ensure its passage over conservative opposition. Once approved by the House, it’s bound to become one of the first bills signed by President-elect Barack Obama after he takes office.

“Collectively, this is one of the most sweeping conservation laws the Senate has considered in many, many years,” said Democratic Sen. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, the chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Lawmakers call the bill the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act of 2009. Skeptics call it pork but could not block its 150-plus provisions through a filibuster. The bill passed easily by a 73-21 margin.

“I believe we’re doing this because we’re thinking in the very short term,” said Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, citing the “blatant, corrupting process of earmarkings.”

Senators constructed the public lands package by combining individual bills, some of which had been floating around for years. The California provisions include:

* San Joaquin River restoration. The bill authorizes $88 million and the work necessary to restore water flows and the salmon population below Friant Dam. This federal money is a down payment on a highly ambitious effort that settles a lawsuit filed by the Natural Resources Defense Council in 1988.

* Storing Madera County groundwater. The bill authorizes $22.5 million to help the Madera Irrigation District construct an underground water bank, designed to store up to 250,000 acre-feet of water. Notably, the bill unilaterally declares the project planned for the 13,646-acre Madera Ranch near Highway 99 to be “feasible” and establishes that “no further studies” are needed.

* Expanding Sierra Nevada wilderness. The bill honors former Fresno-area congressman John Krebs by designating 39,740 acres of land currently in Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks as the “John Krebs Wilderness.” This is smaller than original plans, although an additional 45,186 acres in the southern Sierra Nevada will be added to the existing Sequoia-Kings Canyon Wilderness.