The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is looking into increasing the capacity of the San Luis Reservoir in Merced County, a key water storage basin for the central San Joaquin Valley, says Michael Connor, who has been nominated by the president to become deputy U.S. Interior secretary.

Connor briefly mentioned a draft proposal for the expansion during a forum on the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and the Bay Delta Conservation Plan that drew 500 people to Fresno State University.

The forum was marked by a general consensus that expansion of storage for water sent south of the delta should accompany proposed actions to increase water deliveries that could include improvements in ecosystem restoration and a much-debated plan to build two huge tunnels to divert river water for residents and farms before the water enters the delta, where much of it would go out to sea.

At the same time, panelists said added storage doesn’t necessarily result in more irrigation water being made available unless water can make its way from the delta to storage areas to the south.

The forum was also marked by frequent applause as members of three panels talked of a need for bipartisan action to address regulations that have limited deliveries of irrigation water during a year where shortages have been compounded by low precipitation. Some farmland has been idled in the wake of a 20 percent allocation for water delivered through the system, and there is speculation of a possible zero allocation next year.

Presented by the California Latino Water Coalition, the meeting was conducted in a question-and-answer format. It included some sharp exchanges between panelists over the Endangered Species Act, which is at the center of reduced deliveries of water.

Because of low rainfall and pumping restrictions, the 2 million acre-foot San Luis reservoir only holds 16 percent of its capacity right now.

Bureau Commissioner Connor did not elaborate on proposed expansion of the reservoir’s holding capacity, including how much its capacity would be increased, but said his agency is working on a draft appraisal, which describes the benefits, costs and feasibility of raising the dam. He said the appraisal should be ready in October.

During the forum, Connor was peppered with questions about what could be done to boost water deliveries in the face of biological opinions aimed at protecting fish in the delta.

Among his comments: “We need to move water with as little red tape as possible, to put in place more mechanisms to act with the urgency the situation calls for.”

He said his agency is seeking to try to improve “how we apply the Endangered Species Act,” avoiding blanket rules but adjusting pumping based on “understanding turbidity and location of smelt and salmon.”

Some audience members said that while they appreciated Connor’s visit to the region and his talks with farmers, they wished that the president himself and the secretary of the Interior would do likewise.