Senator Dianne Feinstein, who angered environmentalists, fishing groups and other Democratic lawmakers by proposing to divert more water to California's farmers, said on Friday she was working to avoid controversial legislation.

Feinstein's plan would ease Endangered Species Act restrictions to allow more water to be pumped out of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta for growers in the state's Central Valley.

Dramatic cutbacks in irrigation supplies this year alone from both California and federal water projects have idled about 23,000 farm workers and 300,000 acres of cropland in America's No. 1 Farm state.

Feinstein's proposal has quickly become a flashpoint in the state's epic and long-running water wars as opponents say it could ultimately lead to the extinction of Sacramento River salmon and eliminate up to 23,000 jobs in the Pacific coast fishing industry.

I have been working with federal and state officials, as well as Congressmen Jim Costa and Dennis Cardoza and key water stakeholders ... to find a solution which will enable the water supply equivalent of a 40 percent water allocation for south of Delta agriculture in a normal or above-average year, Feinstein said in a statement released through her office.

As I have said previously, we are exploring every possible option to achieve the water flexibility that would make this legislation unnecessary, she said. I will be working intensively on this issue over the next few days in the hopes of realizing such a solution.


The statement may signal a retrenchment by Feinstein, one day after a group of Democratic legislators sent her a letter asking her to drop her draft legislation and the powerful senator's rebuke by members of her own party underscores the incendiary nature of California's water politics.

California's Central Valley is one of the country's most important agricultural regions. The state's farmers produce more than half the fruit, vegetables and nuts grown in the United States.

Feinstein has released few details of her proposal, which may be attached as an amendment to a federal jobs bill. But she said it would grant Central Valley farmers up to 40 percent of their federal water allocation for two years.

Irrigation districts contract with the state and federal governments to deliver a certain amount of water to them each year. But shortages have recently kept them from getting their full allotments. Most farmers got just 10 percent of their contracted allocations in 2009 and could get less this year.

The cutbacks were forced by water shortages stemming from a three-year statewide drought and delta pumping restrictions imposed to protect imperiled salmon and smelt populations.

A string of Pacific storms this winter has dumped several feet of snow on the mountain ranges that feed California's reservoirs, but officials have not declared the drought over.

The state supplies more than 25 million people and over 750,000 acres of farmland with water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, fed by rainfall and snow-melt runoff from the Sierra Nevada mountains.

(Editing by Todd Eastham)