Water & Drought

Trump promised California farmers more water. Can he deliver?

More than a year ago, Fresno County farmer Wayne Western Jr. penned a letter to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, pleading for help.

Western said the federal government was mismanaging California’s water supply with unjustified environmental restrictions, and that San Joaquin Valley farms such as his might dry up and go out of business without assistance from Washington.

Trump replied with a handwritten note of his own, a pledge: “Got it – crazy. If I win, it will be corrected quickly.”

So how easy would it be for now President-elect Trump to upend water policy in California, sending more water to farms and less to the environment?

Battles over California’s water supply have been waged for decades. Legal experts say Trump’s vow to redraw the state’s water map won’t be fulfilled quickly or easily, even with Republicans controlling both the White House and Congress. Any efforts to direct more water to San Joaquin Valley agriculture would run up against a wall of California laws and regulations aimed at protecting water rights, the environment and endangered fish species.

State agencies have broad authority over the allocation of California’s water, including the massive federal Central Valley Project, which ships irrigation water to farms such as Western’s in the San Joaquin Valley. The state’s authority is especially strong when it comes to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the environmentally stressed estuary that serves as the hub of California’s complicated water-delivery network.

The huge Delta pumps that deliver water from Northern California to the arid fields of the San Joaquin Valley frequently are throttled back to protect endangered fish, leaving less water for farms. California’s historic five-year drought has further stressed the system.

Legal experts say that Delta bottleneck isn’t likely to change dramatically any time soon, even if Congress guts federal protections for endangered fish.

“The state has sufficient authority to protect the Delta or any other waterway in California,” said Jennifer Harder, a water law expert at the University of the Pacific’s McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento.

The bluntest objects in Trump’s tool shed would be revisions to the federal Endangered Species and Clean Water acts, which mandate broad environmental protections for a variety of fish and wildlife that also depend on California’s rivers and streams. But California has its own laws wielding similar protections.

The new political dynamics in Washington make conflict over water policy inevitable.

“I think there’s stormy weather ahead,” said Richard Frank, director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center at UC Davis.

The prospect of having the administration in their corner on water marks a pleasant change for farmers in the San Joaquin Valley after eight years of Barack Obama, who they say put the needs of fish over farmers. While some worry about Trump’s stances on immigration and trade, they see him as a sympathetic figure in their battle to claim a greater share of the state’s irrigation supplies.

Signs declaring “Another Farmer for Trump” popped up throughout the San Joaquin Valley during the presidential campaign. Trump borrowed a refrain from farmers who say their water shortage was caused by a “political drought” – not an environmental one. During a rally last May in Fresno, Trump insisted “there is no drought” and railed against water allocation rules that take into account the needs of “a certain kind of 3-inch fish,” a dismissive reference to the nearly extinct Delta smelt.

And some of the farmers’ staunchest allies continue to have Trump’s ear. A prominent San Joaquin Valley congressman, Republican Devin Nunes of Tulare, is on Trump’s transition team. A lobbyist for the powerful Westlands Water District, which serves farmers on the west side of the valley, is advising Trump on how to staff the Interior Department, which oversees federal dam and pumping operations in California.

“People in the water community, not just in Westlands, but all over, are hopeful there will be a change in how the (water) projects are operated,” said Johnny Amaral, deputy general manager at Westlands and Nunes’ former chief of staff.

San Joaquin Valley farmers and some of their Republican representatives for years have argued unsuccessfully for an overhaul of the Endangered Species Act to allow more water to flow for human needs. Aside from that, Amaral and others believe there’s plenty the Trump administration can do on its own, regardless of what Congress says or whether California officials object.

The easiest way that Trump could deliver more water to the valley doesn’t require changing one word of existing law. He simply could order top federal fisheries managers to take a fresh look at the influential assessments known as “biological opinions” that reflect federal scientists’ analyses of how much water is needed in the rivers to sustain imperiled fish populations. Farmers argue an overly broad interpretation of the biological opinions has resulted in vast amounts of water flowing out to sea that could have been diverted to farmland.

The Obama administration recently began reviewing the biological opinions with an eye toward directing more water toward fish. Farmers hope Trump will take the science in the other direction.

“There will be people placed in various administration places that will re-evaluate the science that’s been put in place,” said Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual, the organization representing citrus growers in the valley.

In practical terms, Trump’s biggest obstacle in making any major shift in California water policy is a state agency known as the State Water Resources Control Board.

The five-person board oversees the state’s system of water rights. The board members – four appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown, one by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger – exercise considerable authority over how California’s water is shared.

While the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and California Department of Water Resources operate critical Central Valley dams, pumps and reservoirs, they do so under water rights administrated by the state board. The board also is charged with leaving enough water in the river systems for the environment.

In other words, the water board has strong sway over how much water is pumped out of the Delta.

The water board is in the process of a substantial rewrite of California’s water allocation. Though decisions are months away, the board has signaled it’s likely to order more water be left in California’s major rivers to protect Delta water quality and endangered fish. That almost certainly would mean less water available for pumping to customers south of the Delta.

Legal experts say the board’s authority on these issues is rooted in both state and federal laws, so it’s unlikely that decisions in Washington could single-handedly strip state officials of their power. Water board Chair Felicia Marcus declined to comment.

So are environmentalists breathing easy? Not necessarily.

Kate Poole, a water lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the state water board has frequently bent the rules at the expense of fish. Last spring, the NRDC joined two other environmental groups in a lawsuit complaining that the state board relaxed water quality standards nearly two dozen times in the past two years to allow extra water to be pumped south from the Delta.

With Trump in office, the board is going “to need to step up and do more,” Poole said.

“They’re going to need to say, ‘No, we’re not going to let you do that.’ 

Ryan Sabalow: 916-321-1264, @ryansabalow

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