Historic Legislation Shows Bipartisan Agreement on Plan to Restore Water Flows for Salmon and Preserving Water Supplies for Current Water Users

(December 6, 2006) -- Bipartisan legislation was introduced in both houses of Congress today authorizing the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to implement an historic agreement to restore water flows on the San Joaquin River below Friant Dam. Identical versions of the "San Joaquin River Settlement Act" were introduced in the Senate and House by California Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, and Representatives George Radanovich, Grace Napolitano, Dennis Cardoza, Jim Costa, George Miller and Richard Pombo.

The bills' sponsorship shows overwhelming bipartisan support for undertaking one of the West's largest river restoration efforts, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Friant Water Users Authority (FWUA). The legislation represents intent of several California Congressional representatives to see through a settlement agreement ending an 18-year legal dispute between NRDC, FWUA and the federal government over the bureau's operation of Friant Dam near Fresno, California. The settlement legislation also enjoys strong support from state officials and numerous water districts around the San Joaquin Valley.

In addition to approving river channel and water flow improvements, the reintroduction of salmon and water management opportunities for current water users, as agreed to in the settlement, the bill authorizes $250 million in new federal appropriations to help pay for the project. Additional funding will come from Friant water user payments and at least $100 million from the Proposition 84 water and parks bond that was approved last month by California voters.

"This legislation's introduction and its consideration by Congress represent a major advance toward making river restoration, renewed river flows and associated new water management in the Friant Division a reality," said Ronald D. Jacobsma, Friant Water Users Authority Consulting General Manager. "The strong bipartisan sponsorship of this bill and the broad backing given previously to the proposed legislation by other San Joaquin River stakeholders demonstrates recognition of the importance of this process and the need to get authorizing language in place as soon as possible. It shows the willingness of widely divergent interests to work together and overcome differences in such a way that environmental restoration is achieved while doing everything possible to avoid impacting other parties."

"It's an incredible testament to the importance of this project that such a broad cross-section of lawmakers would come together to introduce this measure as the clock ticks down on the 109th Congress," said Hal Candee, senior attorney and co-director of NRDC's western water project. "We hope these bills are passed this year, but even if they are not, they set the stage for action by the 110th Congress. Either way, restoring the river is one step closer to reality."

"The introduction of legislation is the latest step in this long process. For the co-equal Water Management Goal to be effective, the Friant community must work together cooperatively and fully utilize the water-loss mitigation measures in the Settlement. Appropriate legislative and administrative actions by federal, state and local officials to ensure recovery of the surface water losses and maintenance of the underground aquifer are an integral part of this process. Failure to diligently pursue the necessary actions for effective mitigation could result in Valley residents being forced to make difficult choices in the future," said Kole Upton, Chairman, Friant Water Users Authority.

Under the proposed legislation, authorization would be given to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation -- which administers the Central Valley Project, Friant Dam and the Friant Division (along the southern San Joaquin Valley's East Side) -- and other federal agencies to implement the San Joaquin River litigation settlement. That agreement was filed September 13 in U.S. District Court in Sacramento and was approved on October 23 by U.S. District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton. It resolved long and complex litigation brought in 1988. The settling parties included the FWUA and all of its member agencies that were parties to the litigation, the U.S. Departments of the Interior and Commerce, and the plaintiffs, an environmental and fishing coalition headed by NRDC.

Jacobsma said the FWUA is grateful for the leadership and involvement of Senator Feinstein, together with the House Water and Power Subcommittee Chairman George Radanovich, in spurring the year-long negotiations that led to the Settlement as well as the talks to hammer out settlement legislation differences.

Should there be no action on the bill during the waning days of the current session of Congress -- and that is a distinct possibility -- the measure would be re-introduced when the new Congressional session convenes in January.

The legislation reflects historic San Joaquin River restoration and water management activities detailed in the September 13 settlement as well as third party protections. Along with approving and authorizing the settlement, the bill includes a number of funding mechanisms. Those include a new $250 million federal appropriation and Friant Division financial support through Friant water users' Restoration Fund payments under the 1992 Central Valley Project Improvement Act.

The bill has been expanded from earlier drafts to establish cost-sharing provisions in the wake of November 7 approvals by California voters in November of two possible state funding vehicles, Propositions 84 and 1-E. The bill also declares the federal government's intent to work closely and cooperatively with the State of California.

Authorization is provided to the Secretary of the Interior to design and construct the extensive list of San Joaquin River improvement projects contained within the Settlement, and implement the agreement. Interior would also be authorized to reintroduce California Central Valley spring-run Chinook salmon and avoid reductions in water supply for or imposition of costs on third-party water contractors while approving Friant Dam operational changes to restore downstream flows at levels specified in the settlement.

Other sections would authorize settlement provisions needed to implement its important water management goal. Those provisions would permit programs and activities of water recapture, recirculation, reuse, exchanges or transfers to minimize impacts on Friant Division contractors and the 15,000 mostly small family farmers on approximately one million acres of the most productive farmland in the nation in addition to numerous communities served from the Friant-Kern and Madera canals.

Like the settlement itself, the bill seeks to restore the San Joaquin River so it can again support historic salmon populations, including the southernmost Chinook salmon population in North America. Since Friant Dam became fully operational in the early 1950s, parts of the system have been dry except for flood releases or infrequent operational spills. Salmon are no longer present above the river's confluence with the Merced River.