Dead fish and starving whales: What Trump’s hidden report on water means to California

Federal scientists pulled no punches in their report: The Trump administration’s plan to send more water to San Joaquin Valley farmers would force critically endangered California salmon even closer to extinction, and starve a struggling population of West Coast killer whales.

But the scientists’ findings weren’t adopted, nor were they released to the public.

Instead, two days after scientists passed their findings on to the Trump administration on July 1, his officials responded by calling in a strike team to redo the 1,123-page report, documents and emails show.

Environmentalists and salmon fishing groups call it a clear-cut attempt by the Trump administration to whitewash science in order to crank up water deliveries to a group of well-heeled farmers who used to have a top Trump administration official on their payroll — a charge the administration denies.

The drama over the scientific findings is the latest battle in the never-ending feud over how much water gets pumped to farms and cities from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the fragile estuary on Sacramento’s doorstep.

Here are four things you need to know to understand how California got to this point and what it means for the environment and its water supply.

Trump’s promise to California farmers

For years, San Joaquin Valley farmers have chaffed at having their Delta water supply reduced to protect endangered fish swimming in the estuary and the rivers that feed into it.

Those farmers have an ally in President Donald Trump.

While campaigning for president in 2016, Trump promised a cheering Fresno crowd he would be “opening up the water” for Central Valley farmers who’d been victimized by “insane” environmental rules to protect fish.

Helping organize the rally were top officials at the Fresno-based Westlands Water District, the largest and most influential farming group in the San Joaquin Valley.

In 2017, Trump appointed David Bernhardt, a former Westlands lobbyist in Washington, D.C., to be deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, which oversees the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the agency that runs the federal dams and irrigation pumps in the Central Valley.

In October, with a group Republican lawmakers at his side, Trump signed a memorandum that sought to ease the environmental regulations that hindered water deliveries.

“This will move things along at a record clip. And you’ll have a lot of water. I hope you’ll enjoy the water you’ll have,” Trump said at the time.

A few months later, Trump’s U.S. Bureau of Reclamation released a report that sought to “maximize water supply and delivery” to Central Valley farmers while maintaining protections for fish.

By that point, Bernhardt was serving as the Interior’s acting director — a job he later got outright.

Meanwhile, the National Marine Fisheries Service was under intense pressure to complete a scientific analysis that would detail how the administration’s water plan would impact salmon, killer whales and other fish species.

Last summer, Maria Rea, a top fisheries scientist at the agency’s Central Valley office, said her team didn’t have nearly enough staff to complete the job under a hurried timeline set by the Trump administration.

“We do not have resources to undertake this consultation,” Rea wrote in an July 25, 2018 email, which was first reported by KQED.

But the Trump administration pushed on.

We now know the result — one that doesn’t bode well for salmon and whales under the Trump administration’s current plan.

New report says fish would die

On July 1, Rea’s agency sent a copy of a 1,123-page “biological opinion” up the Trump administration’s chain of command.

Biological opinions are the scientific documents that are used to set the ground rules for how much water is released from dams and how much can be pumped downstream.

The report says the plan to provide more water for agriculture would spell major trouble for the critically endangered winter-run Chinook salmon. These fish migrate from the Pacific Ocean up the Delta and spawn in the heat of the summer in the Sacramento River below the federal government’s Shasta Dam in Redding. Their numbers suffered profoundly in the last drought.

The report says the plan would harm the fish in “each freshwater stage of their life cycle.”

“The combined effect of these stressors throughout the life cycle likely has important consequences for the viability of the population,” says the report, which was first obtained and reported by The Los Angeles Times this week.

The report says other imperiled salmon runs also are likely to diminish under the Trump administration’s water plan. That would be bad news for a small, struggling population of Orcas in the Pacific Northwest because the killer whales feed on adult salmon along the West Coast.

Two killer whale pods are “expected to be harmed through the increased risk of impaired foraging due to decreased Chinook salmon abundance in the ocean,” the report says.

The report didn’t go over well with the Trump administration.

Within two days of receiving the report, Paul Souza, a regional director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, sent an email to federal fisheries and water officials, telling them a new team of attorneys and scientists would spend the next two months going over the report with “fresh eyes.”

This “important mix of new people,” Souza wrote, “have a wealth of relevant expertise — science, law, policy, and regulation.”

In an interview Wednesday with The Sacramento Bee, Souza said the team he brought in wasn’t there to sanitize the findings. Instead, he said, they were necessary to ensure they were on sound scientific footing.

“We have hundreds and hundreds of pages of really technical information,” Souza said. “When you have documents of this magnitude I always find it helpful to bring in people that can look at it with fresh eyes and help make sure that our logic is clear and that we’re putting our best foot forward with the best available science.”

The reactions

The draft report drew swift condemnation from environmental and fishing groups.

They say Interior Secretary Bernhardt is pulling the strings to “adulterate” science and “suppress the document’s findings” in order to benefit Westlands, his former client.

Westlands general manager Tom Birmingham didn’t respond to a request for comment.

“The Department of the Interior is once again showing its true colors by subverting the scientific process to serve its clients in corporate agriculture, no matter which endangered fish or whales get in the way,” Noah Oppenheim, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, said in a statement. “Will the state of California let the Trump Administration strike a brutal blow in the water wars, one that it can see coming, or will it take a defensive stand?”

Souza told The Bee such “criticisms are missing the mark.”

“The truth is this is an effort that’s being led by career conservation professionals,” he said. “We know California water is always an issue that has a tremendous amount of scrutiny and interest. The reality is we just needed more time to get it right.”

Souza said federal fisheries officials have been working since July with their counterparts at Reclamation to revise their plans to ensure better survival rates for fish — a process that has involved two independent scientific peer reviews.

He said he hopes to have the final documentation ready in two to three weeks.

Farm groups say they’re optimistic the latest scientific analyses will better serve fish whose numbers continue to drop, despite the cuts to agriculture’s water supply.

“They’re not working,” said Mike Wade, executive director of the California Farm Water Coalition. “The fish populations continue to decline. There’s got to be more to it than simply redirecting water.”

What does it mean?

Like anything to do with a dispute over California water, attorneys will probably end up being the biggest winners.

The report and the maneuvering inside the federal government are almost certain to play a role in the inevitable lawsuits that will get filed once the Trump administration issues a final biological opinion.

Environmental groups promise to sue should the Trump administration decide to press ahead with its plan to send more water to farmers. If the administration holds back, farming groups will likely file their own legal challenge.

It can take years to sort water fights out in court.

In the meantime, the findings in the draft report could put more pressure on California lawmakers to pass a controversial bill that would make Trump administration environmental rollbacks illegal under California law.

Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, told The Bee last week her Senate Bill 1 is necessary for California to have an “insurance policy against the exploitation of our natural resources and our people.”

The bill, which is likely to spark a flurry of lawsuits of its own, faces an uncertain future in the California legislature.

SB 1 passed the State Senate in May.

But with the clock ticking toward the end of the legislative session in two weeks, the bill hasn’t yet advanced out of the Assembly Committee on Appropriations.

Editor’s note: This story was updated Aug. 22 to correct which officials were with President Trump when he signed his October water memorandum.

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Ryan Sabalow covers environment, general news and enterprise and investigative stories for McClatchy’s Western newspapers. Before joining The Bee in 2015, he was a reporter at The Auburn Journal, The Redding Record Searchlight and The Indianapolis Star.