Task force for state water created

WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration on Monday set up a task force to wrangle with California water decisions, with long-term hopes of consolidating protections for smelt and salmon.

The task force envisions one unified environmental management plan assisting the fish species dependent on the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Guided by an Interior Department veteran with considerable California experience, the task force has shorter-term goals as well.

"(This will) ensure that we are coordinating to use state-of-the-art science and to find the best alternatives to protect both endangered fish and water supplies," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in a prepared statement.

Salazar and his Commerce Department counterpart, Gary Locke, oversee the two federal agencies responsible for protection of the smelt and salmon. Under intense pressure from California lawmakers, both have been scrambling to free more water and to show they feel the state's pain.

The task force and a unified environmental management plan are supposed to address worries that federal agencies aren't properly coordinating their actions.

The Interior Department wrote one biological opinion spelling out protection measures for the delta smelt. Separately, the Commerce Department wrote a biological opinion identifying protection measures for steelhead and Chinook salmon.

Last year, in part because of the environmental protections, farmers on the San Joaquin Valley's West Side received only 10 percent of their normal water allocation. This year, officials have indicated farmers can expect at least 30 percent.

Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein applauded the possibility of merging the Interior and Commerce department biological opinions, saying it "makes good common sense." The nonpartisan National Research Council, in a preliminary report issued in March, similarly cited the potential virtues of merging management plans.

"The lack of a systematic, well-framed overall analysis is a serious scientific deficiency," the National Research Council warned in March.

The task force is supposed to come up with a list of "near term actions" by May 30. By November, the task force will be looking at ways to integrate the Interior and Commerce department management plans along with the state's Bay-Delta Conservation Plan.

The integrated biological opinion is expected to come out in early 2012.

"We welcome the federal effort," Lester Snow, California's secretary of natural resources, said in a statement.

David Nawi, a Harvard-trained attorney who has served as a senior adviser to Salazar since September, will represent the Interior Department on the task force. Nawi served during the Clinton administration as the California-based regional solicitor for the Interior Department.

Monica Medina will represent the Commerce Department, where she is principal deputy undersecretary. Medina also served in the Clinton administration.