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California lawmakers lose bid to change water rules

WASHINGTON Central California lawmakers have failed again in their effort to block the environmental rules steering irrigation water toward the protection of endangered species.

With Interior Secretary Ken Salazar planning a Fresno town-hall meeting for Sunday, a powerful House panel decided to quietly bury the controversial San Joaquin Valley amendment. Unlike a similar effort last week, this latest amendment never reached the House floor.

The proposed amendment to a $32 billion Interior Department funding bill would have blocked spending on two so-called "biological opinions" governing crucial California water flow. These biological opinions mount to federal water management rules that protect the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and species including salmon and the delta smelt.

"For the San Joaquin Valley, the majority in this House has chosen fish over working families," Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, declared Thursday.

Last week, Nunes won permission from the House Rules Committee to offer a similar amendment to a Commerce Department spending bill. The amendment failed by a closer-than-expected 218-208 margin, with 37 Democrats supporting it.

Around 8 p.m. Wednesday, Nunes returned to the rules panel and sought permission to offer the new version of his San Joaquin Valley water amendment. The Rules Committee, though not widely known outside of political circles, is powerful because it serves as the gatekeeper to the House floor.

Lawmakers submitted more than 100 potential Interior Department amendments for consideration, some targeting specific earmarks and some intended primarily as symbolic statements.

One proposed amendment, for instance, would have eliminated funding for the Angel Island State Park Immigration Station Hospital rehabilitation project in San Francisco Bay. Another, authored by a Michigan Republican, would have prohibited the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gases if it resulted in higher domestic gasoline prices.

The Rules Committee only permitted about a dozen of the proposed amendments to be offered, including the one eliminating the Angel Island earmark.

One Democrat on the Rules Committee, Rep. Dennis Cardoza of Merced, noted during discussion that, as a positive development on the water front, Salazar will be visiting Fresno for the town-hall meeting on drought. Another Democrat wondered aloud why an amendment should be brought back if it already had failed once before.

The committee ultimately voted 8-4 to block Nunes from offering his amendment on the House floor, with Cardoza being the only Democrat to side with Nunes.

Now, Nunes is preparing to try again with a related amendment to yet another fiscal 2010 spending bill, this one covering energy and water projects. Similar amendments will offered whenever possible, Nunes says.

"It's the only way we can call attention to the problem," said Andrew House, a spokesman for Nunes.

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