The Trump administration Friday pledged to slash the thicket of federal environmental regulations that govern the Delta and much of California’s water supply, aiming to increase water deliveries to his political allies in the San Joaquin Valley.
President Donald Trump signed a memorandum directing his underlings to review a broad swath of water regulations and “eliminate all unnecessary burdens,” the president said during an appearance in Arizona.
Trump’s memo drew quick reaction from California officials, who have fought the Trump administration on multiple fronts and said water supply can co-exist with environmental goals. “We can and must do both, without sacrificing one for the other,” said spokeswoman Lisa Lien-Mager of the Natural Resources Agency. “We hope we can continue working with the federal government to achieve these shared goals.”
The order represents Trump’s latest effort to make good on a campaign promise to bring more water to Valley farmers, who have chafed for years under environmental restrictions that prioritize water for salmon, Delta smelt and other endangered species. In August, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke sent a blunt memo to his aides demanding an action plan to push more water south through the Delta and onto Valley farms.
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“What’s happened there is disgraceful,” Trump said of California’s water situation. “They’ve taken it away. There’s so much water, they don’t know what to do with it, they send it out to sea .... They don’t let the water come down into the Valley and into the areas where they need the water.”
Trump was surrounded by five Republican congressmen from the Central Valley: Tom McClintock, Devin Nunes, Jeff Denham, David Valadao and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, whom he credited with bringing the issue to his attention. “They are the ones who really led this drive,” the president said.
Denham, in a press release, said: “My number one priority has always been to deliver more water to the Central Valley. This order will reduce regulatory burdens and promote more efficient environmental reviews of California water storage projects, ensuring that Valley farmers and residents have a supply of water for generations to come.”
The memorandum, among other things, orders the administration to speed up a 2-year-old examination of the rules covering how water is pumped through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta — the environmentally fragile hub of California’s elaborate water delivery network.
Trump’s insistence on strict timetables for completing that review suggests he wants to find ways to pump more water to the San Joaquin Valley’s farmers, potentially at the expense of endangered fish species that ply the Delta’s waters. Sometimes the pumps have to be shut off or throttled back, allowing water to flow to the Pacific, in order to keep fish from being sucked into the pumps.
“For the last decade people have done a lot of talking and a lot of examination (of the Delta) and the reality is that the on-the-ground results for people and species have not dramatically improved,” Deputy Interior Secretary David Bernhardt told reporters.
Bernhardt is a former lobbyist for Westlands Water District, a Valley irrigation district that has long advocated increased pumping operations. He vowed that the administration would move “in a way that’s protective to species and responsible to people.”
Asked about the timing of the memorandum, just weeks before the midterm election, Bernhardt said, “I think the administration got to a point where they’re ready to make a decision” on water issues.
Farm groups applauded the president’s initiative. “This action is an important and common-sense move that will benefit Western farmers and ranchers,” said Dan Keppen of the Family Farm Alliance.
Environmentalists immediately pounced. Noah Oppenhim of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations said Trump is trying to “gloss over the science” and his initiative would leave endangered fish populations defenseless.
The memorandum also covered environmental regulations covering the Klamath Irrigation Project in Oregon and the Columbia River Basin project in Washington state.
Earlier Friday, it appeared that Trump was stepping into one of the biggest water wars of all — the State Water Resources Board’s plan to re-allocate more of the San Joaquin River watershed’s supplies to fish at the expense of farms and cities, but Friday’s move stopped short of that.
Bernhardt said the Trump administration stands by its earlier threat to sue the state if it goes forward with the plan. But he said the administration also wants “wind through the process in a way that’s amenable to all parties.”