WASHINGTON — Parched San Joaquin Valley residents likely will find it easier to get federal money than to punch loopholes in the strict environmental laws some believe aggravated the current drought.
The money arrived Wednesday, with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's delivery of $260 million for California water projects. Major legal and regulatory revisions, though, still appear to be long shots on and off Capitol Hill.
"The appetite for making major changes in the (environmental law) has diminished," noted Robert Irwin, the Defender of Wildlife's senior vice president for conservation programs.
At a Sacramento news conference, held after an aerial tour of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, Salazar offered the California funding as part of $1 billion provided from an economic stimulus package. The projects will range from $4 million for Delta environmental and $22 million for Folsom Dam safety to $40 million for various anti-drought measures.
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In addition to the $260 million, California could also compete for additional Bureau of Reclamation funds.
But with double-digit Valley unemployment and federal irrigation deliveries slashed to zero south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, some still insist money won't be enough.
"Today's announcement is very disappointing in that it does little to help our farmers and farm workers in the next six to twenty-four months, should we continue to experience ongoing dry circumstances," said Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno.
Nine California lawmakers back legislation to exempt the region's water projects from the Endangered Species Act. Some have urged Salazar to carve out exemptions on his own. Others have stoked public resentment.
In theory, the pressure could persuade regulators to loosen water restrictions designed to protect species like the Delta smelt. But in practice, environmental laws and regulations have frequently proven impervious.
A federal committee dubbed the "God Squad," which is empowered to override species protections, has done so only once in its 31-year history. Salazar indicated Wednesday he is unlikely to invoke it now. The Endangered Species Act itself has remained intact during the past 16 years of alternating Democratic and Republican rule.
Not least, congressional leaders support key environmental laws as they currently stand.
"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 still remains an influential West Coast voice on the panel that's now chaired by a West Virginian, Democratic Rep. Nick Rahall.
In September, 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. In February, joined by eight other Valley lawmakers, Radanovich reintroduced the bill.
"The draconian regulations that turn simple fish into the worshiped 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.
A subcommittee of Rahall's panel conducted a broader hearing last month into the California drought, but no schedule has been set for moving the pumping plant legislation.
"There is generally strong support for the ESA," Irwin said, citing the "change in Congress and the administration."
Rahall's pro-farming and pro-industry predecessor as Resources Committee chairman, former Republican Rep. Richard Pombo of Tracy, failed despite vigorous efforts in the 1990s to revise the law. In a potential object lesson for other lawmakers, Pombo subsequently lost his seat in 2006 after being targeted by environmentalists in a multimillion-dollar campaign.
The Interior Department has some power to act on its own, as lawmakers including Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, have urged. Here, too, political history offers some cautionary lessons.
In 2002, tens of thousand 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 non-partisan Congressional Research Service noted, before adding that "it has been little used."