Today the U.S. House of Representatives’ Natural Resources Committee approved legislation that will authorize implementation of the San Joaquin River Restoration Settlement. The implementing legislation, formerly H.R. 24, is now incorporated into H.R. 4074. The committee approval advances the settlement objectives yet allows time for the San Joaquin River litigation Settling Parties, consisting of NRDC and the environmental/fishing interests (plaintiffs in the litigation), Friant Water Users Authority and its 22 member districts, and the federal government (both defendants in the litigation), along with affected other interests (Third Parties) to further refine the provisions of the plan before further moving through the House or Senate for final legislative action.

Congressman Jim Costa, a member of the committee, successfully shepherded the legislation through the voting session today. “Friant is very appreciative of the substantial effort and leadership by Congressman Costa,” said Ronald D. Jacobsma, Consulting General Manager of the Friant Water Users Authority. “We also appreciate the support and efforts of Congressman George Radanovich and Congressman Dennis Cardoza and the other sponsors of the bill.”

Congressman Costa today stated, “The Water Management and PAYGO issues need to be settled before I take this bill to the House floor. I look forward to working with all the interested parties on both of these matters.”

In a letter to Congressman Costa supporting approval by the committee, Senator Diane Feinstein stated, “I look forward to working with you, Representative Radanovich, and Representative Cardoza in moving this settlement forward — with equal emphasis on the water management goal to mitigate Friant’s water losses, alongside the river restoration efforts.”

Federal legislation to implement the settlement was introduced late last year beyond the timeframe for legislative action and re-introduced by Congressman Radanovich and Senator Diane Feinstein in January of this year, the start of the current Congressional session. The settlement agreement places equal emphasis on restoration of historic salmon fisheries (by additional water releases from Friant Dam and River improvements) and mitigation (recovery) of water supply impacts to Friant irrigation and urban water users as a result of the water releases.

Federal legislation is required to provide the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation with the authority and funding it needs to implement the settlement and begin making physical improvements in the channel from Friant Dam to the confluence of the Merced River in advance of salmon fishery restoration flows a few years from now as well as implementing programs to mitigate water supply impacts to Friant water contractors as a result of those fishery flows.

“Friant supports the settlement as originally negotiated. The settlement is viewed by Friant water users as a superior alternative to an unpredictable ruling (and water supply impact) by a federal court. I’m optimistic that the House Committee approval will provide the opportunity to advance the settlement efforts. The process will also enable evaluation of the financing mechanisms needed to satisfy Congressional budget requirements as well as the interests of all the parties, including the individual Friant water contractors,” said Jacobsma. “Depending upon the outcome of those evaluations, further refinements acceptable to the Settling and Third Parties may be necessary before the bill advances further.”

Amendment to reduce ‘Pay-Go’

Since January, progress slowed while Congress reviewed the legislation under the new Pay-Go rules. The amended bill heard today in the House Committee on Natural Resources includes a proposed amendment that could clear the pay-as-you-go, or ‘Pay-Go’ rules established by this Congress. The Pay-Go rules basically state that any additional Congressional direct appropriations (expenditures) be offset by reductions in other programs or increased federal revenues so that the overall budget impacts, while not directly connected, are negated. The legislation as originally enacted “scored” at nearly a $250 million impact to the federal government over a ten-year period, in spite of a majority of the funding being generated by Friant water users. Proposed amendments, not yet approved by the Settling and Third Parties, reduce the “score” to an estimated $170 million. The committee by separate legislation (but linked because of the rules) identified approximately $170 million in “offsets”, thus satisfying the Pay-Go rules to allow the legislation to move forward. The offset, as opposed to the settlement legislative proposal itself, was of concern to many members of the committee.

As part of the effort to reduce the Pay-Go score, the proposed legislation includes a concept wherein the Friant water contractors would accelerate their share of capital repayment obligations for the water facilities constructed and funded by the federal government in a manner that is cost neutral to the water contractors. That proposal would eliminate bonding provisions in the current legislation otherwise needed to provide timely funding for river improvements and other settlement objectives, thus resulting in a Pay-Go scoring reduction. In exchange for the advance payments, Friant water contractors would be granted water contracts that provide for greater certainty with respect to water supply allocation and federal facility utilization.

Conceptual support

The Friant Water Users Authority Board of Directors has given conceptual support, but not formal approval, to the proposed amendment in order to further advance the legislative effort. The Friant Board and member districts are still reviewing the viability of the proposal.

Friant’s conceptual support is conditioned on agreement from the sponsors that the amended settlement legislation will not be brought before the House or Senate without the Board’s formal approval of the ‘Pay-Go’ amendment, and on the willingness of the other Parties to proceed. Additionally, the amount of the prepayment under consideration by Friant is dependent upon the overall financial package resulting in no negative financial impact to the Friant contractors as compared to the current version of the legislation.

About the Friant Water Users Authority

The Friant Water Users Authority serves 22 San Joaquin Valley member water agencies that are supplied with water from the Central Valley Project’s Millerton Lake behind Friant Dam near Fresno through the Friant-Kern and Madera canals. For more information, visit our Web site at www.fwua.org.