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Trump administration sues California to block water plan for fish

What farmers think about plan to divert more San Joaquin River water

The State Water Resources Control Board will hold two days of hearings on a proposal to leave more of the water in the lower San Joaquin River and its three tributaries, the Tuolumne, Merced and Stanislaus.
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The State Water Resources Control Board will hold two days of hearings on a proposal to leave more of the water in the lower San Joaquin River and its three tributaries, the Tuolumne, Merced and Stanislaus.

Turning the tables on California, the Trump administration sued Thursday to block the state’s ambitious plan to reallocate billions of gallons of river water to salmon and other struggling fish species.

The lawsuit by the U.S. Department of Interior injects the Trump administration into one of the biggest California water controversies in years — an issue where Gov. Gavin Newsom is attempting to forge a compromise between agriculture and the environment.

The State Water Resources Control Board voted in December to reallocate the flows of the San Joaquin River and its tributaries. The move is designed to help steelhead and salmon by taking water from San Joaquin Valley farmers and a handful of cities that rely heavily on the tributaries — including San Francisco.

Newsom and former Gov. Jerry Brown endorsed compromise plans that would shift more water to fish, but not as much as the state water board had sought. In a further attempt to find common ground with agriculture, Newsom ousted water board Chairwoman Felicia Marcus, who had become unpopular among farmers, and appointed wealthy Modesto-area grower Bill Lyons to the newly created post of agricultural liaison.

Now the Trump administration, which has spent the past two years trying to deliver more water to Valley farmers, is going on the attack. After being sued at least 45 times by California officials — on issues like climate change and immigration — the Trump administration is filing a suit of its own over the water board’s decision.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Sacramento, says the state water board’s plan would violate California’s own environmental laws, as well as foul up the federal government’s ability to deliver water from New Melones reservoir on the Stanislaus River to member agencies of the Central Valley Project.

The CVP is the federal project, built during Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency, that brings water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to farm-irrigation districts in the Valley.

Federal officials had threatened to sue for months. New Melones “was put there for a reason, and it was put there because it was the will of Congress ... to manage water, to prevent floods, to deliver water to families and farms,” Brenda Burman, commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, told The Sacramento Bee last August.

Mike Wade, an advocate for Valley farmers, said he doesn’t oppose the lawsuit but would prefer to see the compromise plan championed by Newsom come to fruition. A voluntary agreement is “probably the most durable solution and position solution” and could bring about change a lot more quickly than a lawsuit, said Wade, who runs an organization called the California Farm Water Coalition.

State water board officials defended the December decision to reallocate river water but said they’ll continue to work on compromises.

“The Board’s December 2018 Bay-Delta Plan update was the culmination of extensive environmental analysis and years of public process. The Board looks forward to defending its decision in court,” board spokesman George Kostyrko said in an email.

Environmentalist Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, of the group Restore the Delta, said the move comes as no surprise. She noted that Trump’s acting interior secretary, David Bernhardt, is a former lobbyist for an influential group of San Joaquin Valley farmers who helped organize Fresno campaign rallies when Trump was running for office.

On the other hand, she said she opposes the compromise proposals for the rivers, saying they fall well short of protecting the environment.

“We’re going to be left with degraded drinking water supplies — just exactly what was done to Flint, Mich.” she said.