Species protections debated amid water shortage

Farmers face long odds in their drive to loosen strict environmental laws that have aggravated the Valley's water shortage.

On Wednesday, U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar rejected what he called a "quick-fix, run-over-everything kind of approach," and instead called for a comprehensive solution to the state's water problems. He specifically ruled out seeking help from a special committee that can overrule environmental protections.

"That is not the solution here," Salazar said during a stop in California to announce $260 million for California water projects.

With double-digit Valley unemployment and federal irrigation deliveries slashed to zero south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, some say money won't be enough.

Nine California lawmakers back legislation to exempt the region's water projects from the Endangered Species Act, which has cut pumping of water from Northern California. Some have urged Salazar to carve out exemptions on his own.

A federal committee dubbed the "God Squad" that's empowered to override species protections has done so only once in the committee's 31-year history. The seven-member committee is composed of top agency administrators, including the secretaries of agriculture and interior.

Democratic congressional leaders support existing key environmental laws.

"There are no silver bullets that will solve all of California's water woes," Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, declared in a recent written statement. "Suspending the federal Endangered Species Act certainly won't do it."

Miller is a close adviser to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. He is a former chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, and remains an influential West Coast voice on the panel that's now chaired by a West Virginian, Democratic Rep. Nick Rahall.

In February, Rep. George Radanovich, R-Mariposa, introduced a bill to exempt two federal pumping plants near Livermore and Tracy from the environmental law during drought emergencies. He was joined by eight other Valley lawmakers.

"The draconian regulations that turn simple fish into the worshipped gods of the environmental community and ignore the inalienable rights of people have led us to conclude that government does not work for us anymore," Radanovich testified last month.

A subcommittee of Rahall's panel conducted a broader hearing last month into California's water shortage, but no schedule has been set for moving the pumping plant legislation.

"There is generally strong support for the ESA," said Robert Irwin, the Defender of Wildlife's senior vice president for conservation programs. He cited the "change in Congress and the administration."

The Interior Department has some power to act on its own, as lawmakers including Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, have urged.

In 2002, tens of thousands of protected salmon and steelhead trout died in the Lower Klamath River after water levels were drawn down to provide more irrigation deliveries to Klamath Basin farmers. The shift of water was later revealed to have been a political priority of the Bush administration, prompting multiple investigations and at least one lawsuit.

A less overtly political route is available through the seven-member God Squad, more formally known as the Endangered Species Committee. The panel can decide "whether to allow a federal action to proceed despite jeopardy to a species," the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service noted, before adding that "it has been little used."