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Feinstein seeks to ease restrictions on pumping water from delta

February 11, 2010 |  4:47 pm
California Sen. Dianne Feinstein has drawn up legislation that would for the next two years loosen Endangered Species Act restrictions on pumping water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to increase irrigation deliveries to San Joaquin Valley agriculture. Feinstein has not released details of the proposal, which she is calling the Emergency Temporary Water Supply Amendment and is expected to attach to a jobs bill.

In a statement, she said the language has not been finalized, and that she is open to “alternative ways” of boosting water supplies for the valley’s west side, which has been hit hard by delivery cuts caused by the state drought and the pumping limits. But the draft legislation, a copy of which was obtained by The Times, would effectively weaken new pumping restrictions designed to protect delta smelt and migrating salmon.

Irrigation districts and urban water agencies have sued to overturn the curbs, which they contend are overly strict and are significantly reducing the volume of water that can be pumped from the delta east of San Francisco.

 “Regardless of how much it rains and snows ... we will not be able to move water to storage in San Luis Reservoir under the most severe restrictions imposed” by the fish protections, complained Tom Birmingham, general manager of the sprawling Westlands Water District. “This is not a waiver. Nobody is proposing a waiver for the Endangered Species Act.”

But as word spread of Feinstein’s plans Thursday, some saw it as an attack on endangered species protections from an unlikely source, a powerful Democratic senator.

 “My only hope is that she remains open and thinks very carefully about the consequences of this lurching response to the situation,” said state Assemblyman Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael), a major player in California water politics. “This is by any stretch an attempt to legislate science and an end run around the Endangered Species Act.”

-- Bettina Boxall