Delta stands to benefit from stimulus

WASHINGTON -- The Senate thinks stimulating the U.S. economy and saving the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta can go hand in hand.

A hefty stimulus bill heading for a Senate vote this week includes $50 million for delta restoration efforts. That makes the delta one of the very few regions nationwide cited for specific assistance in the bill expected to cost well above $800 billion.

"We're pleased to have the money in the stimulus package," said Jeanie Esajian, public information officer for the CALFED Bay-Delta Program.

The $50 million could pay for Bureau of Reclamation levee improvements, habitat restoration, fish screens and other work around the tattered delta, upon which some 22 million California residents rely for at least part of their water supply. State and federal agencies are collaborating in the long-running environmental effort.

Other California water projects would draw funding from the economic stimulus package as well. The bill, for instance, includes $110 million for small reclamation projects. Many are in California, such as water recycling efforts in Santa Clara and the East Bay.

The stimulus bill, though, does not name the specific reclamation projects slated for funding. Mindful of criticism about pork barrel spending, senators largely omitted mention of specific earmarks.

A 431-page draft of the stimulus bill's primary funding components includes the word "California" only once, in reference to the state's environmentally sensitive Bay-Delta region where the $50 million would be spent.

Most other states and localities aren't explicitly mentioned in the bill. Other provisions to be added could bring the bill's total length to more than 1,000 pages.

Still, even with its nearly unique status with the Senate bill, the delta money isn't a sure thing. House members did not include it in their $819 billion stimulus package approved Tuesday over unanimous Republican opposition. House and Senate negotiators still have to resolve their differences.

Even the Senate's provision does not, by itself, guarantee funding. The Senate bill states that the $50 million "may" be spent on the Bay-Delta, but does not say it must be spent.

The economic stimulus bill is on a fast track, with congressional Democrats hoping they can get a final version to the White House for President Barack Obama's signature soon.

Capitol Hill negotiators must iron out many differences going well beyond the delta funding.

The Senate bill, for instance, omits $50 million that the House bill includes for the National Endowment for the Arts. Over the past year, the federal agency has provided grants to the Monterey Jazz Festival, Fresno's Radio Bilingue and the San Francisco Mime Troupe, among others. Supporters say the additional arts funding will help sustain jobs.

Mortgage assistance reflects another potential difference to be worked out. Senate Republicans, cheered on by some House Democrats, are considering adding a provision allowing current homeowners to refinance their homes at a 4 percent interest rate.

Merced Democrat Dennis Cardoza authored a House version of the proposal, but it was not included in the House stimulus bill.

"I am pleased to see not only a bold, far-reaching solution emerging in the Senate, but from across the aisle," Cardoza declared.

"This is the exact bipartisan cooperation that President Obama has called for."

For farmers, the Senate bill includes the latest in a long line of disaster payments, notwithstanding pledges last year that the new 2008 farm bill would eliminate the need for such ad hoc, year-by-year assistance. The House bill does not include agricultural disaster assistance.

Bee Washington Bureau reporter Michael Doyle can be reached at or 202-383-0006.