WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is expected today to unveil an ambitious-sounding package of irrigation deliveries, water transfers, farm loan guarantees and other programs targeting the parched San Joaquin Valley.
Crafted amidst intense political pressure, the package is meant to alleviate farmers' distress while still protecting salmon and delta smelt. Some key California lawmakers said late Thursday they were pleased by the effort, though others still want more detail.
"I'm heartened by this," Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein said Thursday night. "I think we've had good progress."
The comprehensive package is expected to accompany what is normally a routine water allocation announcement, where the federal Bureau of Reclamation declares how much water farms and cities can expect. Last February, the bureau announced farmers south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta would receive nothing. That later increased to 10 percent of historic deliveries.
This year, lawmakers have been demanding that farmers receive up to 40 percent of their historic deliveries. If necessary, Feinstein said she would offer an amendment rewriting environmental decisions to ensure delivery of increased water.
Feinstein said Thursday there is "a good likelihood" the administration actions being announced today will go a long way toward her goal. Precise details, including the initial allocation percentages, were being tightly held until today.
"I'm very hopeful," added Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer.
Feinstein and Boxer spoke as they departed an extraordinary closed-door session that amounted to a high-level California water summit. Three Cabinet secretaries, both of the state's senators and more than half-a-dozen House members convened on Capitol Hill for more than 90 minutes to hash out the state's immediate water woes.
In part, the session held in the underground Capitol Visitors Center permitted Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Council on Environmental Quality chief Nancy Sutley to sketch out their plans for easing California's pain.
The session allowed members to keep the pressure on. Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, reminded the administration officials of the 40 percent unemployment that's brutalized some valley towns, while Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, cited predator fish and other nonirrigation causes for the decline of endangered species in the delta.
Cardoza said he was taking a "trust but verify" approach toward the administration's work. Past Interior Department announcements have frustrated valley lawmakers.
"Until we see the press release, I'm going to withhold my judgment," Costa agreed.
Farmers have been leery, with Westlands Water District General Manager Tom Birmingham predicting Wednesday the initial water allocation will again be zero, as it was last year.
One possibility is that the Bureau of Reclamation's initial allocation, while low, will be accompanied by expectations that the other actions being taken will bring total water deliveries up toward the 40 percent mark.
The water allocations, in turn, will be framed by a snowpack that after three years of drought is now on track to be normal this year, according to the California Department of Water Resources.
The northern Sierra snowpack already qualifies as above-average for the entire season, which ends April 1. The northern snowpack supplies Panoche, Westlands Water District and several other west valley water agencies.
Now, federal officials must decide if the growing snowpack will provide enough water for farms and fish. Usually, the bureau announces a conservative allotment in case the weather turns dry in late winter and early spring.
State officials say reservoir levels still must rise to recover from the drought. Shasta Reservoir on the federal proj- ect has risen to 98 percent of average for this time of year, but massive Oroville Reservoir on the State Water Proj- ect remains at only 54 percent of average.