Capitol Alert

Gov. Gavin Newsom hits back at Trump in new fight over who controls California water

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration is taking unprecedented steps to combat President Donald Trump’s efforts to ship more water to his agricultural allies in the San Joaquin Valley.

Saying Trump’s water plans are scientifically indefensible and would violate the state’s Endangered Species Act, the state Department of Water Resources on Friday began drawing up new regulations governing how water is pumped from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to the southern half of the state.

The move sets the stage for another confrontation between Trump and Newsom over the future of California’s water supply and the fish that live in it. Already, the state has sued the Trump administration more than 45 times over issues ranging from immigration to climate change.

State officials believe the Trump administration’s plans will hurt the Delta’s fragile fish populations — and could lead to water supply cuts to the 25 million Californians who receive drinking water from the state’s pumps in the estuary. The Trump administration has argued that the pumps can be opened wider without harming the endangered fish.

The issue revolves around the delicate arrangement between the State Water Project and the federal government’s Central Valley Project, both of which pump water south from the Delta.

The state traditionally defers to the federal government on environmental rules in the Delta. For the first time, with its announcement Friday, the state is drawing up its own rules — throwing down a legal gauntlet that could force the federal government to comply with state laws.

The move is a response to the Trump administration’s decision in February to fulfill the president’s 2016 campaign promise that he’d be “opening up the water” for Central Valley farmers who’d been victimized by why what he called “insane” environmental rules protecting fish.

On Feb. 5, the federal Bureau of Reclamation began the process of reinterpreting the scientific “biological assessments” that are used to set pumping restrictions to keep endangered fish species from being harmed by the pumps.

The Trump administration didn’t hide its intent to effectively change the outcome of those scientific assessments: “Maximize water supply and delivery” for irrigation districts that belong to the Central Valley Project.

On Friday the state made its own move. It began the process of drawing up new rules for the State Water Project, and how it draws water out of the Delta.

Because the state and federal Central Valley Project pumps work in tandem, the state could trigger a legal showdown if the state’s move ends up formulating stricter rules, as many experts believe. The key issue would be whether the U.S. government would have to comply with state law.

“It has not been legally tested,” said Barry Nelson, a Bay Area consultant and policy advocate for environmental groups.

That question is also being debated in the Legislature. Senate Bill 1, the “California Environmental Defense Act, introduced in December, would require the federal government’s water operation to comply with the state Endangered Species Act.

Lauren Meredith, spokeswoman for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, said “we have successfully worked with the state to jointly operate the Central Valley Project and State Water Project for many decades. We will continue to coordinate with the state on how to meet and share our various regulatory obligations and initiatives for species recovery.”

The state’s response isn’t just about protecting fish. It’s also about protecting the State Water Project’s share of Delta water supplies. State officials are worried that increased pumping by the federal government could force the State Water Project to reduce its deliveries out of the Delta to compensate for the federal government’s ramped-up pumping. The state project’s biggest customer is the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which serves 19 million residents.

In announcing the state’s response Friday, Karla Nemeth, director of the Department of Water Resources, said: “California’s commitment to environmental values is unsurpassed and we will continue to operate our water infrastructure in accordance with state law, policies and those values.”

Environmentalists said Trump’s efforts to change the rules would relax a number of standards for the federal Central Valley Project, which includes dams such as Shasta, the state’s largest in the northern Sacramento Valley, as well as the massive pumping stations at the south end of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

“Governor Newsom deserves credit for drawing a line in the sand to protect California’s salmon from federal rollbacks,” said John McManus, president of the Golden Gate Salmon Association, which represents fishermen. “The federal government is rapidly moving away from protection for the Delta and the salmon stocks.”

In releasing their proposal in February, federal officials said they’re simply trying to build more flexibility into a system that they say is overly rigid. Because of state and federal endangered species protections, the two projects often have to throttle back their deliveries in order to protect the salmon, smelt and other imperiled Delta fish species, allowing water to follow its natural course to the Pacific Ocean.

At the same time, though, federal officials based in Sacramento have expressed frustrations that the Trump administration has been trying to rush the changes through without allowing enough time for scientific analysis, according to a report by KQED.

“We do not have resources to undertake this consultation,” Maria Rea, assistant regional administrator at the National Marine Fisheries Service, said in an email to her staff last July.

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