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Science group to study environmental measures affecting California water deliveries

Obama administration seeks the review in response to Central Valley farmers' complaints about measures that protect fish and cut water deliveries for agriculture.

October 01, 2009|Bettina Boxall

In a bow to a summer of angry complaints about water cutbacks to Central Valley farms, the Obama administration said Wednesday it would invite the National Academy of Sciences to examine the environmental measures restricting some water shipments from Northern California.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said he would ask the academy to conduct an independent review of the science underpinning federal pumping limits imposed under the Endangered Species Act to protect smelt and salmon in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

In a letter to U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who had requested the review, Salazar said he was confident that the fish protections were "scientifically sound." But he said he would like the academy to determine if there were other actions that could be taken that would have less of an effect on water supply.

The announcement came on the same day that Salazar held a public hearing in Washington on California's water shortages, caused by a three-year drought and mounting environmental problems in the delta, the conduit for water shipments to the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California.

The delivery cutbacks have hit agribusiness on the west side of the valley the hardest because they have junior rights in the huge federal irrigation project that supplies much of the region.

State water officials say most of the delivery cuts from the delta are the result of drought -- not the fish protections -- but Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Central Valley congressmen have repeatedly denounced the endangered species restrictions as placing fish above people.

Responding to similar rhetoric at the hearing, Salazar said it was wrong to blame California's water problems on environmental regulations.

"Labeling this as a man-made disaster, a regulatory drought, ignores the real issues," he said.

Cynthia Koehler, senior consulting attorney for the Environmental Defense Fund, which is active on delta issues, said she did not interpret Salazar's academy request as an attempt to undermine the federal reports, called biological opinions, that are the basis of the pumping limits.

"They're asking for a broad analysis of what is going on . . . and we're comfortable with that," she said, adding that the academy had "the nation's best scientific minds."

Salazar also announced that six federal agencies had signed a memorandum of understanding to work together on delta issues. And he urged Schwarzenegger to call a special legislative session to take up a package of water proposals, many of which deal with the delta.

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bettina.boxall@latimes.com

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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