Can Trump force California to drain its rivers? He’s about to try

UPDATE: This story was updated at 1:30 p.m. to reflect statements by President Donald Trump clarifying that he will seek to change federal environmental regulations regarding water usage, which could result in less water in California rivers. Trump did not indicate he would move to block a plan by the State Water Resources Control Board to re-allocate the waters of the San Joaquin River watershed to help endangered fish species, a move that the office of Rep. Jeff Denham had earlier suggested Trump would take.

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President Donald Trump intervened in California’s water wars Friday by signing a memorandum designed to bring more water to farmers and weaken environmental protections for fish.

Trump’s memorandum took a broad swipe at federal regulations that govern how water moves through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the hub of California’s water delivery system. A senior administration, in describing the memo, told reporters that underlings were being directed to “suspend, revise or rescind” regulations that are overly burdensome to the delivery of water.

However, the president didn’t take any action to halt the state’s plan to re-allocate more of the San Joaquin River and its tributaries es to endangered fish species at the expense of farms and cities in the Valley. Earlier in the day, the office of Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, who’s been begging the administration to halt the plan, said it believed Trump would intervene in the state’s effort. Denham accompanied Trump at the memo signing in Arizona, his office confirmed.

The Trump administration, which counts Valley farmers as political allies, has already made clear it would do whatever it can to halt the state’s effort. In late July the federal Bureau of Reclamation threatened to sue the state if it proceeds with its plan. The Trump administration argues that the water re-allocation would interfere with operations at New Melones reservoir on the Stanislaus River, which is owned and operated by the federal government.

New Melones was built in part “to deliver water to families and farms,” Reclamation Commission Brenda Burman said during a recent visit to Northern California. “And what the water board has put forward really takes away from that purpose.”

In a conference call with reporters Friday, Deputy Interior Secretary David Bernhardt mentioned Burman’s threat to file suit against the state. But he also said the administration wants to work with the state “collaboratively” on the San Joaquin River issue.

The board, controlled by Gov. Jerry Brown’s appointees, is scheduled to vote on the plan Nov. 7.

The state’s plan would require that “unimpaired flows” of the lower San Joaquin and its tributaries increase to 40 percent. In some years, as little as 11 percent of the river water is allowed to flow unimpeded to the Pacific Ocean. As a result, state officials say, the watershed’s population of salmon and steelhead are verging on extinction.