* Proposal has infuriated environmental groups
* Democrats say plan could wipe out salmon, fishing jobs
* Water cuts have idled cropland, farm workers - Feinstein (Updates with response from Feinstein, paragraphs 5, 8-10)
By Dan Whitcomb
LOS ANGELES, Feb 18 (Reuters) - A group of Democratic lawmakers on Thursday asked Senator Dianne Feinstein to abandon draft legislation that would divert more water to California’s farmers, a plan that has quickly become a flashpoint in the state’s long-running water wars.
Feinstein’s proposal, which would ease Endangered Species Act restrictions, has angered environmental activists and fishing groups. The powerful Democratic senator’s rebuke by members of her own party underscores the incendiary nature of water politics in America’s No. 1 farm state.
The 12 lawmakers, who sent a letter to Feinstein asking her to drop the plan, 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.
“Salmon may not have high-paid lobbyists like the corporate agriculture interests in the Central Valley, but they are critical to our economy,” Rep. George Miller, a California Democrat, said in a written statement.
Feinstein responded with a letter telling Miller she was happy to work with him on another way to supply growers with the water they needed.
Drastic cutbacks in irrigation supplies this year alone from state and federal water projects have idled about 23,000 farm workers and 300,000 acres (121,400 hectares) of cropland.
California’s Central Valley is one of the country’s most important agricultural regions and the state’s farmers produce more than half the fruit, vegetables and nuts grown in the United States.
Feinstein told Miller she was aware of the fishing industry’s decline but said two decades of water allocations had made little difference in salmon populations while farming communities had suffered.
“Last year, 400,000 acres (162,000 ha) of land were fallowed. Laid-off workers have been forced to choose between standing in bread lines or leaving the valley in search of work elsewhere,” she wrote. “Continuation on this path will lead to the destruction of agriculture. I refuse to sit by idly and do nothing.”
Feinstein has released few details of her proposal, which may be attached as an amendment to a federal jobs bill. She said in the letter that she was seeking to secure Central Valley farmers 38 to 40 percent of their contracted allocation for the next 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 allocation 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 (300,000 hectares) 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 Eric Walsh)