Rep. Jim Costa on Monday surrounded himself with west-side water allies as he introduced the latest bid to ease environmental restrictions and boost irrigation deliveries from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
The Fresno Democrat has proposed legislation that would let farmers secure more water from the troubled delta while still keeping some pumping restrictions in place to protect endangered salmon and threatened delta smelt.
He introduced the bill without the Valley Republicans who now are part of the House majority, and its long-term prospects are unclear.
If approved by Congress and signed by President Barack Obama, the new rules would be in effect for five years. Costa said that could allow all sides to forge a more permanent solution to the ongoing delta water wars.
"We're trying to fix the delta," said Costa, who made his announcement near a central Fresno canal.
The salmon fishing industry and others who support the salmon and smelt protections, however, say the bill would take needed discretion away from the federal government and could lead to massive fish killings under certain conditions.
Costa's announcement came the same day as the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced a higher allocation of water for farmers on the west side of the Valley.
The bureau said Monday that farmers would receive 65% of their water allocation from the Central Valley Project, an increase of 10 percentage points from just a week ago, and 15 percentage points over what had been announced last month.
Yet to come this week: a ruling Wednesday on the latest battle over potential pumping cuts to protect fish.
On Friday, the federal government is scheduled to enact protections for endangered salmon and Central Valley steelhead.
Given the high rainfall this year, it likely won't mean immediate water pumping cutbacks but under the rules, it could happen quickly, west-side farmers and water users said.
Water users including the Westlands Water District are seeking an injunction from U.S. District Judge Oliver W. Wanger to stop the government action.
"The reality is, we're in a crisis," said Westlands General Manager Tom Birmingham.
Birmingham, who attended Costa's announcement, said water allocations set by the federal government are based on a worst-case scenario, which takes into account not just the season's rainfall, but potential pumping restrictions as well.
As long as the more onerous potential pumping restrictions remain in place, the water allocation will remain depressed, he said.
Farmers, in turn, make their planting decisions based on the allocation.
West-side farmer Joe Del Bosque, who participated in Costa's news conference, said if the federal government's water allocation could go from 55% to 70%, he could plant an additional 120 acres each of asparagus and cantaloupes, as well as 500 additional acres of wheat. It would create 25 to 30 new jobs, he said.
Costa's legislation, supporters said, would give the federal government flexibility to increase water projections because it essentially rewrites a portion of the salmon and smelt management plans, known as "biological opinions."
Under the proposed legislation, for instance, pumping cuts could still be enacted to protect the fish, but the reductions could not be as steep. The pumping restrictions are put in place at certain times of the year to protect salmon and smelt.
Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, a trade group for commercial salmon fishermen, said Costa's legislation would be a problem for his industry because it could hurt salmon populations.
"Westlands is the puppet master down there and they are trying to get their hands on every last bit of water salmon be damned and the whole coast be damned," Grader said.
The legislation faces an uncertain future on Capitol Hill, where the politics of Western water are complicated.
Last year, for instance, 11 House Democrats from California, Oregon and Washington vigorously opposed a similar bid by Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein to boost San Joaquin Valley irrigation deliveries. Feinstein ultimately backed off her proposal.
The Senate, controlled by Democrats, will be a tough road for a bill that is likely to be cast as undermining environmental protections.
The House might be more immediately persuadable, as Republicans enjoy a 241-192 seat advantage over Democrats.
Two theoretical Costa allies who are in the House majority Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, and Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Atwater were not apprised of the pending legislation.
Denham hadn't seen Costa's legislation, but said during a meeting of The Bee's editorial board that it sounded similar to language Republicans tried to into a recent resolution authorizing short-term governmental operations.
"I'm glad he's coming to the table," Denham said of Costa, though he declined to take a position on the legislation until he has read it.
Nunes and Costa, by contrast, have clashed repeatedly over issues including Costa's support for a San Joaquin River restoration plan.
Costa, for instance, has accused Nunes of grandstanding with past California water amendments, while Nunes has said Costa has been mesmerized by environmentalists.
On Monday, Nunes said he was glad "Valley Democrats are finally supporting what we've been trying to do for the past four years, although their votes have to match their rhetoric." He added that Costa voted against the same language in January.
The legislation being introduced this week comes as the House water and power panel chaired by Tom McClintock prepares for an April 11 field hearing in Fresno.
The hearing, to be held at Fresno City Hall, is designed to lay the groundwork for future legislation addressing what the hearing planners call a "man-made drought."