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Destructive bill would suspend Endangered Species Act at Delta pumping plants during droughts  

By MICHAEL DOYLE ; McClatchy Newspapers Published: September 17th, 2008 02:13 PM WASHINGTON -- California Republican George Radanovich [District 19 -  parts of Stanislaus, Madera and Fresno counties and all of Tuolumne and Mariposa counties] wants to suspend one of the nation's premier environmental laws in order to increase water pumping out of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

In a long-shot bill being introduced Thursday, Radanovich proposes to exempt two Delta-area pumping plants from the Environmental Species Act during designated droughts. Farmers would gain irrigation water - essentially, at the expense of fish.

"This is all about preparation," Radanovich said Wednesday. "It gives (us) a means to turn the pumps on and store up water."

If enacted, Radanovich's bill would dramatically shift the flow of water during times of drought. It effectively would override a Fresno, Calif.-based federal judge's decisions designed to protect species including the Delta smelt.

Realistically, the new bill is unlikely to be enacted any time soon.

"I will support George's effort, but I don't think it has much chance of passage," said Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Calif. "The reality is, I don't think it will have much hope."

Many impediments stand in the way. Time is one of them, as Congress is set to adjourn in less than two weeks. Substantively, the bill excites the opposition of environmentalists - including close allies of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Congress has generally been loath to carve such specific exemptions into the 35-year-old Endangered Species Act.

Even so, the bill might serve some other purposes. There are many diverse motives behind the 2,550-plus measures introduced in the House since January. Some are designed to change the law. Others send a signal, strike a pose or frame a debate.

"It's going to be a tough thing," Radanovich acknowledged, "but I want all the legislators on record."

He added that "we're not just sending a message." The bill includes language authorizing a Delta smelt hatchery program designed to help the troubled species, and is also being co-sponsored by Cardoza and California Reps. Devin Nunes, a Republican, and Jim Costa, a Democrat.

The Endangered Species Act currently protects more than 300 California plants and animals designated as threatened or endangered. Sometimes, these protections can come at a steep cost.

Last December, U.S. District Judge Oliver Wanger imposed new rules on state and federal pumping plants in order to protect the threatened Delta smelt. The restrictions on the federal C.W. "Bill" Jones Pumping Plant and the state Harvey O. Banks Pumping Plant near Tracy could cut water deliveries south of the Delta by up to 30 percent.

Radanovich's five-page bill exempts the two pumping plants from the usual ban on wounding or killing a protected species once the governor and the Interior Department have declared a drought emergency.

Cardoza recalled previous failed efforts to rewrite the Endangered Species Act, some led by the former chairman of the House Resources Committee, Richard Pombo, R-Calif. Pombo tried to rewrite the law for 14 years, during 12 of which his fellow Republicans controlled the House.

The pressure from Pombo and other private property advocates did help push the Interior Department to modify, somewhat, how the environmental law is put into practice. But even during the four years he chaired the House Resources Committee, Pombo could not move his bill over the finish line. Pombo's efforts, in turn, earned the enmity of environmental groups that spent millions of dollars to help oust him in 2006.

Even seemingly small adjustments in the law have been elusive.

In 1997, following catastrophic California flooding, Pombo sought to exempt canal and levee improvements from the usual Endangered Species Act coverage. Proponents at the time, including Radanovich, said the exemptions were needed to meet an emergency. The effort nonetheless failed, defeated by a coalition of moderate Republicans and Democrats.

"We do not have to blow a hole in the Endangered Species Act to take care of this problem," Rep. George Miller, a California Democrat and longtime ally of Pelosi, cautioned at the time.