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Congress split over San Joaquin River funding in California

An ambitious San Joaquin River restoration plan once again divides the House and Senate.

On Friday, the Republican-led House took up an annual energy and water spending bill that pointedly omits any funding for restoration of the once-teeming California river. The Senate’s bill, by contrast, steers $12 million toward efforts to restore water and salmon to the channel below Friant Dam. Caught in the middle are the farmers and federal officials trying to make the restoration work.

“The proposed construction activities will be starting in the near term, so the funding needs will be increasing,” Ron Jacobsma, general manager of the Friant Water Authority, said Friday.

The river funding dispute will have to be negotiated as part of a final bill that provides about $32 billion for an assortment of energy, Bureau of Reclamation and Army Corps of Engineers programs. It’s a nationwide package with special relevance for California’s Central Valley, serving both irrigation and environmental purposes.

The House bill, for instance, includes $36 million for restoration of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, a 10 percent cut from this year. The bill and its accompanying verbiage also push policies in certain directions. Lawmakers, for instance, are using the House bill to encourage quicker completion of studies for potential water storage projects on the Upper San Joaquin River and in the Sacramento Valley, among other locations.

In a similar vein, Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento, used a colloquy with subcommittee leaders to urge more flexibility from the Corps of Engineers on policies governing flood-control levee vegetation. Many California lawmakers insist the state should not be subject to a strict no-vegetation rule imposed elsewhere.

“(We will) ensure the Corps gives serious consideration to these concerns, and perhaps conduct additional research, if it is deemed advisable, prior to finalizing its levee vegetation policy,” Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., the chair of the House energy and water funding panel, assured Matsui.

Inevitably, the bill also incites symbolic acts that send a message but fail legislatively. Frelinghuysen and lawmakers from both parties, for instance, brushed off by a 275-113 vote an amendment by Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Elk Grove, that would have slashed energy funding.

On the San Joaquin River restoration, more than mere dollars separate members of Congress.

Farmers and environmentalists agreed six years ago on a long-term restoration plan, thereby ending a lawsuit begun in 1988.

House Republicans want to kill the current river restoration program and replace it with a far less expensive plan focusing on warm-water fish instead of salmon. Driving the point home, Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, authored an amendment to be considered when the House resumes debate next week that prohibits federal funds from being used to re-introduce salmon to the river in fiscal year 2013.

Current plans still call for salmon to be reintroduced by Dec. 31, 2012, though there are hints that federal officials won’t meet this deadline.

“The reintroduction of the spring run of salmon may be delayed, but they are still trying to find a way to do it shortly after this year,” Jacobsma said.

The Obama administration opposes the current House bill and officials have threatened a presidential veto, citing in part the attack on the San Joaquin River plan.

“The administration strongly opposes the committee’s elimination of funding for this program, which would undermine the San Joaquin River Restoration Settlement’s goals to restore and maintain fish populations and reduce or avoid water supply impacts,” the White House’s Office of Management and Budget stated.

Even if Congress omits funding for next year, though, some money has already been made available, potentially enabling some work to proceed.

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