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Administration, Delta farmers oppose bill to halt river restoration

WASHINGTON — A controversial bill blocking restoration of the San Joaquin River would "ignore universally accepted" science and "hasten the decline of numerous species," a top Obama administration official declared Monday.

But in an unusual hearing that underscored the bill's larger political challenges, opposition to the legislation and praise for the ongoing river restoration effort arose as well from influential Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta growers.

"Our agencies support the San Joaquin River settlement," said Stockton attorney John Herrick, speaking on behalf of the South Delta Water Agency and the Central Delta Water Agency.

The Delta water agencies serve farmers who collectively own about 268,000 acres within the Delta. Their political support means the river restoration fight can no longer simply be cast as farmers-vs.-environmentalists or conservatives-vs.-Obama.

"The issue has nothing to do with political leanings or beliefs," Herrick testified.

Herrick joined representatives from the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations in denouncing the bill. No witness explicitly testified on behalf of the bill authored by Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia.

The bill has attracted most of its attention for its San Joaquin River provision, though its reach goes well beyond the one river.

The bill stops the restoration plans that resolved an 18-year-long lawsuit. That settlement calls for water flows and salmon to be restored below Friant Dam by Dec. 31, 2012. Interior Department officials are in discussions about possibly moving back this deadline.

Beyond the San Joaquin River, the bill also limits the amount of water Central Valley farmers must give up for fish and wildlife and preempts any state laws that might otherwise mandate greater environmental protection.

"If enacted, this law would hasten the decline of salmon in the Central Valley and Delta and negatively impact the Delta ecosystem and the economy of the state of California and the nation," declared William Stelle, Northwest regional administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The imbalanced lineup Monday for the hearing by the House water and power subcommittee did not reflect majority sentiment in the House. The bill still appears greased for passage through the House Natural Resources Committee and the full Republican-controlled House, perhaps before the congressional August recess.

Democrats, though, invoked a rarely used parliamentary rule to insist on the hour-long Monday morning hearing, as a follow-up to a hearing held June 2. The only Republican to attend Monday was subcommittee chairman Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Elk Grove. No one's mind seemed to be swayed one way or another.

"What I find most disappointing is that not a single new argument has been raised," McClintock said, further declining to ask any questions of the witnesses.

In the Senate, Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer have jointly voiced their strong opposition to the House bill backed by Nunes and Reps. Jeff Denham, R-Atwater, and Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield.