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20 years of water war may end

This afternoon, 20 years after a lawsuit got the ball rolling, the San Joaquin River restoration bill will almost certainly clear its last big Senate hurdle. Final approval could come by the end of the week, following today's key procedural vote. "We've had our hands full," said Ron Jacobsma, general manager of the Friant Water Users Authority. "This is one of the largest, most complex river restorations in the West. But we think it is moving ahead appropriately." Attorney Hal Candee, who represents environmentalists, said that the effort has come far despite all the odds, having won support from state and federal officials as well as urban and rural communities. "It couldn't come at a better time," Candee said. But not everyone thinks so. "We're talking about a slow death for some farming," predicted former Friant Water Users Authority board President Kole Upton, a Madera and Merced county farmer. If signed into law as now written, the river restoration bill would authorize $88 million in federal funds over 10 years. The money would be combined with $200 million in state bond funds as well as additional federal dollars. The river bill has been folded into a package of about 150 other public lands and environment-related measures. Weighing in at 1,296 pages, the public lands bill is opposed by some conservatives including Republican Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla. Coburn authored 13 amendments to strip out provisions, including the San Joaquin River part, which he calls an overly expensive plan to "save 500 salmon." Senate Democratic leaders will allow only discussion but not votes on the amendments. So the amendments will not be made. "This package represents some of the worst aspects of congressional incompetence and parochialism," Coburn said. The Senate's approval would be followed by House action, setting up the public lands bill to become one of the first to be signed by President-elect Barack Obama after his Jan. 20 inauguration. The bill's other California provisions include: Funding for a proposed Madera County water bank. The $22.5 million in federal funds would help establish an underground water supply on the 13,646-acre Madera Ranch, and the bill would streamline the usual approval process by declaring that "the project is feasible and no further studies or actions regarding feasibility are necessary." Establishment of the John Krebs Wilderness, covering about 69,000 acres of federally owned land in the Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks. The measure honors the former Fresno-area congressman who was instrumental in protecting the region from development, although park officials say day-to-day management will not change much. The San Joaquin River restoration effort has inspired some unexpected new alliances, and fractured some others. It has divided San Joaquin Valley lawmakers. It has sorely tested everyone's legal, political and legislative acumen. The Natural Resources Defense Council first sued in December 1988, hoping to return water flows and a viable salmon population to the long-parched river channel below Friant Dam. In September 2006, facing courtroom defeat, the Friant farmers agreed to join their longtime environmental adversaries in settling the suit. "We got involved in the agreement to limit our losses and get some water back from the restoration flows," said Upton, who had helped negotiate the 2006 agreement but has since soured on it. Concerns over losing irrigation water prompted the Chowchilla Water District to back out of the Friant Users Authority. Similar concerns heightened tensions between bill skeptics like Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, and bill supporters like Rep. George Radanovich, R-Mariposa. Federal officials are now completing a big environmental study of the river restoration plan. No water can start flowing until the study is done, perhaps later this year. The timeline for the river work, under the guidance of a new "restoration administrator," extends beyond 2016. This restorative work includes building a bypass around the Mendota Pool in western Fresno and Madera counties, so migrating salmon won't get hung up on their way home. Gravel pits along the river will be filled in or isolated to protect juvenile salmon. Seasonal barriers will be installed to keep fish from getting lost near Los Banos. THE REPORTERS CAN BE REACHED AT MDOYLE@MCCLATCHYDC.COM, MGROSSI@FRESNOBEE.COM OR (559) 441-6330.

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