‘Time for action is now.’ Interior chief demands plan to pump more California water south

The Trump administration is accelerating efforts to pump more of Northern California’s water to farmers in the San Joaquin Valley, setting up a bruising conflict with state officials and environmentalists.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke last week sent a memo to underlings demanding a plan within 15 days aimed at “maximizing water supply deliveries” to irrigation districts south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

“The time for action is now,” he wrote.

In the memo, Zinke also blasted a proposal by the State Water Resources Control Board that would restrict water deliveries to Valley farms and cities, as well as much of the Bay Area, in order to prop up endangered fish populations. The state board is starting two days of hearings on the plan Tuesday, although it has postponed a decision indefinitely to encourage environmentalists and farm groups to reach compromises.

Zinke visited the Valley a month ago and signaled his solidarity with farmers.

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“The State of California is now proposing additional unacceptable restrictions that further reduce the Department’s ability to deliver water to Federal contractors,” Zinke wrote in his memo, which was dated Aug. 17.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation already has threatened to sue the state if the water board finalizes its plan. Zinke’s memo said the Trump administration would take a broader array of “legislative and litigation measures” in order to deliver more water south.

Meanwhile, hundreds of farmers and their supporters rallied on the north steps of the Capitol Monday to protest the state’s plan, calling it a water grab that would devastate the Valley economy. Elected officials, including members of Congress and county supervisors, vowed to fight the board’s proposal.

“If we need to, we will take this directly to the people on the ballot,” said Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced.

Separately, around the corner on the Capitol’s west steps, a small group of environmentalists Monday spoke in favor of the state’s plan. “The days of pumping our rivers dry are over,” said Noah Oppenheim of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations.

Zinke’s memo suggests the Trump administration is growing increasingly frustrated with the regulatory bottlenecks that prevent more water from being pumped out of the Delta to millions of acres of Valley farmland.

Last December the Interior Department’s Bureau of Reclamation said it was exploring methods of moving more water south, but it promised that the evaluation would take a year or longer. Now Zinke is looking at having an action plan ready quickly.

“This is just an escalation of the Trump administration’s war on California,” said attorney Doug Obegi, of the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco, which opposes measures to increase water pumping. “We’ll see what happens. ... So far the state has been pretty effective at pushing back on the administration.”

While campaigning for president in Fresno in 2016, Donald Trump belittled environmental regulations and said he would make water deliveries to agriculture a priority of his administration.

Zinke’s chief deputy at the Interior Department is David Bernhardt, a former lobbyist for the Westlands Water District, which delivers water to a major swath of the Valley from the U.S. government’s Central Valley Project. Bernhardt had vowed to recuse himself from decisions affecting Westlands, but the memo says Bernhardt’s office will be in charge of making final recommendations to Zinke.

Interior officials say Bernhardt’s recusal ended Aug. 2.

Although Valley farmers got 100 percent water allocations following the record rains of 2017, the comparatively dry winter of 2018 led to a reduction in supplies. Farmers on the west side of the Valley received just a 50 percent allocation.

Zinke’s memo suggested the administration might part ways with the state over the operations of the massive pumps in the south Delta. The U.S. government’s pumps deliver water to farmers who belong to the Central Valley Project, while the state’s pumps bring supplies to cities and farms that are part of the State Water Project. The two pumping stations operate in tandem, but Zinke directed aides to begin “identifying and making infrastructure improvements necessary to independently operate the Central Valley Project.”

Farm groups applauded as Zinke’s memo began circulating through the agricultural community over the weekend.

“Our hope is that the action plan will help restore the CVP’s ability to deliver water to our farms and communities,” said Steve Chedester of the San Joaquin River Exchange Contractors Water Authority, which represents farmers on the east side of the Valley.

Not every farmer is cheering Zinke’s memo.

Farmers in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta say they’re deeply troubled by its implications. They fear that downstream farmers may be given carte blanche to suck away their water supply, a move they say would violate state law since many Delta farmers have top priority in the state’s complicated system of water rights.

“The farmers south of Tracy in the San Joaquin Valley, ... they want us to go away and die. They’re not on our side,” said John Herrick, a water attorney in the South Delta who represents some 125,000 acres of farm land and the cities of Lathrop and Tracy. “If you’re stuck on a project that can’t deliver you the water you signed up for 50 years ago, that’s not my problem. I’m not supposed to give water up because your system doesn’t work.”

Environmental restrictions, aimed at preserving Delta smelt, Chinook salmon and other fish covered by the Endangered Species Act, often will force the Delta pumps to shut down or reduce deliveries, allowing water to flow out to the ocean.

Zinke’s memo gives Central Valley Project irrigators “hope that there will be a more balanced approach to water supply adequacy and reliability that is sorely needed,” said Frances Mizuno of the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority. The authority delivered CVP water to much of the west side of the Valley, plus portions of Silicon Valley.

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