They gathered this week at Sacramento’s federal building on Capitol Mall, carrying protest signs and vowing to resist the Trump administration’s plan to pump more of Northern California’s water through the Delta to the southern half of the state.
The government “wants to suck our lifeblood dry,” said Noah Oppenheim, leader of a group representing commercial fishermen. An ally hoisted a sign that said, “Don’t pump the Delta to extinction.” Dania Rose Colegrove, a Hoopa Valley Tribe member, said the Trump proposal would suck more water from the Trinity River, a place her tribe considers sacred, to keep wealthy farmers’ crops growing hundreds of miles south.
The scene couldn’t have been more different the following night in Los Banos, on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley, where farmers gathered at a community center to voice their support for the Trump administration’s proposal. They see it as Trump making good on a campaign promise in Fresno in 2016, when he derided efforts to “protect a certain kind of 3-inch fish” – the nearly extinct Delta smelt – and promised to bring more water through the Delta to agriculture.
“I finally have some optimism,” said Mitch Coit, a grower in the Los Banos area.
Nothing sharpens the political divide in California like a fight over water. Just before New Year’s, the U.S. Bureau of Administration announced it would try to “maximize water deliveries” to the agricultural districts that belong to the federal government’s Central Valley Project. A series of public comment hearings this week, in Sacramento, Los Banos and Chico, illustrated the vast gulf between the warring factions.
In Sacramento on Tuesday, nearly three-dozen environmentalists, tribal representatives and others held a brief protest outside the federal building, then marched inside to blast the plan in front of Bureau of Reclamation employees.
They believe moving more water through the Delta pumps would bring more environmental ruin to the troubled estuary and kill more Delta smelt, Chinook salmon and other endangered fish species. The harm would spread as far north as the Oregon border, where rivers would get sucked dry to feed the Delta pumps, they said.
Gary Mulcahy, 63, a Winnemem Wintu Tribe member from Shasta County, nearly broke down as he described a salmon population decimated by water shortages. “Now, you could sit there for hours and not see a single salmon come back,” he said.
Mocking President Donald Trump’s campaign slogan, Mulcahy wore a red hat that read, “Make America Sacred Again.”
The Trump administration’s plan, which will take about a year to finalize, is based in large part on a 2016 law signed by former President Barack Obama. The vaguely worded law creates some additional protections for the Delta but also directs pump operators to deliver more water when possible to customers of the Central Valley Project and the State Water Project. Many environmental groups condemn the law, but its backers, including California’s U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, said it served as a compromise between environmental and water-supply needs.
Reclamation officials said they won’t run roughshod over the environment in their effort to bring more water south. Rather, they want to take a fresh look at Delta waterways to see if there’s a way to help farmers while still protecting fish.
“Both sides are struggling,” said Austin Ewell, a recent Trump appointee who is the Interior Department’s deputy assistant secretary for water and science. “The current system is not necessarily working for whatever party.”
Reclamation’s effort comes at a pivotal time. Gov. Jerry Brown is expected to announce soon whether to downsize the Delta tunnels project, his $17-billion plan designed to improve fish habitats and water deliveries by rerouting how water reaches the state and federal pumping stations. Meanwhile, two federal agencies that oversee the Delta’s struggling fish populations have launched a review of decade-old pumping regulations, and California’s State Water Resources Control Board is examining the Delta’s water quality with an eye toward reducing pumping.
Where does all that leave Reclamation’s plan to “maximize” water deliveries? In Los Banos, farmers said they expect California officials, who have fought Trump on everything from immigration to climate change, to use powerful state laws to limit the effect of the Reclamation proposal or halt it altogether. State officials have vowed to protect California’s fish and wildlife as they scrutinize Reclamation’s plan.
“We’re seeing more evidence of a state that’s willing to backstop environmental protections and push back on any federal intrusion, particularly from the Trump administration,” said Cannon Michael, a farmer from the Los Banos area and chairman of the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority, a major valley water agency.
Still, the mood among valley farmers and their leaders was one of cautious optimism. Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, told the crowd gathered in Los Banos that Reclamation’s plan could reverse more than 20 years of declining water deliveries, brought on by court decisions and regulations, that have devastated valley farm communities.
“Places like Los Banos, Dos Palos, Mendota have felt the burden of the lack of water,” the congressman said. “It breaks your heart.”
Among farmers, the Reclamation proposal affirms their belief that they have a friend in Washington in Trump.
“He has at least come out and said, ‘We’re going to do something about the water,’ ” said Joe Del Bosque, a prominent valley farmer from Firebaugh. “We’ve been through years with no water.”