While campaigning for president in 2016, Donald 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.
Trump took one of the most aggressive steps to date to fulfill that promise Tuesday by proposing to relax environmental regulations governing how water is shared between fish and human uses throughout the Central Valley. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation released an 871-page “biological assessment” of conditions in the Delta that it said is designed to “maximize water supply and delivery” while maintaining protections for fish.
But environmental groups said the move would put new strains on the Valley’s struggling salmon and smelt populations — and could also force the state to cough up some of its urban water supplies to keep the fish from declining further.
Just a few weeks ago, former Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration agreed to surrender some of the State Water Project’s supplies to the federal government’s Central Valley Project. The state project primarily serves urban populations, which lean Democratic, while the federal project delivers its water to rural San Joaquin Valley, a bastion of pro-Trump Republican voters.
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The new plan by the Trump administration poses a direct challenge to Brown’s successor, Gavin Newsom, who so far has said little about water policy. His fish and water agency chiefs said they were still reviewing the document Tuesday.
“Our review will take a hard look at the proposed operations, focus on the biological needs of important fish and wildlife species, and determine whether the Bureau responded to our previous concerns,” said Chuck Bonham, director of the Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Farmers welcomed the document. Mike Wade of the California Farm Water Coalition called it an antidote to outdated rules that ”have failed all parties — fish and wildlife, communities, and farmers.”
“We have to do better than what we’ve done,” Wade said.
Environmentalists were appalled.
“It sure looks like a plan for extinction,” said Doug Obegi, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Obegi said the proposed 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.
Federal officials, however, said they’re simply trying to build more flexibility into a system that they say is overly rigid.
Russ Callejo, a Bureau of Reclamation project manager, said in an interview that the proposal would give project operators more leeway in managing crucial conditions such as Delta salinity levels, cold water requirements in the Sacramento River, and restrictions on Delta pumping that confuse migrating fish and draw them into harm’s way.
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. Callejo said the new plan would rely more “on what the fish are doing and where they’re located ... as opposed to a rigid ‘this is what you’ll do.’”
He said he couldn’t speculate how much more water the proposal would free up for human demands.
“That number’s not ready right now,” said Callejo.
Environmentalist critics say what the Trump administration is proposing would allow the federal government to walk away from many pumping restrictions, such as a requirement that the Sacramento River below Shasta Dam be kept cold enough to protect spawning salmon.
Trump’s proposed changes could put state officials in a bind. The State Water Project traditionally relies on the feds’ scientific data to get permits from the California Department Fish and Wildlife to operate the state pumps.
Obegi said the science in Trump’s proposal is so indefensible that the wildlife agency could force the State Water Project to dial back its pumping to compensate for increases in federal pumping and avoid violating the state’s Endangered Species Act.
Trump’s plan would mean “the state has to pump less to meet its obligations” to meet state law, said Obegi, the environmentalist attorney. He said it’s unclear whether the state could use the Endangered Species Act to force the feds to back down.
The two projects have historically operated in tandem, under the same general rules.
“Now we’re in a new situation where, well, this is uncharted territory,” said water expert Jeff Mount of the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California.
It’s not clear how much the State Water Project stands to lose. The project’s largest contractor is the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, with 19 million customers, but it also serves the Kern County Water Agency and some other farming districts.
Roger Patterson, Metropolitan’s assistant general manager, said he hadn’t reviewed the massive document in its entirety and was reluctant to comment on its ramifications for his agency’s supplies.
“We want to have changes that are scientifically supportable, and ... the critical criteria that both projects have to operate are the same,” he said. “You can’t operate to different criteria.”
The environmental proposals are the latest chapter in the Trump administration’s ongoing efforts to bring more water to Valley farmers as the Department of Interior, which oversees water in the West, is being run by Acting Secretary David Bernhardt, a former lobbyist for the largest and most influential Central Valley Project member agency — the Westlands Water District. Trump announced Monday he was nominating Bernhardt to be secretary permanently.
Westlands officials played a key role in bringing Trump to Fresno to campaign in 2016.
A month ago, under pressure from Interior, the State Water Project coughed up an average of 100,000 acre-feet of water a year to the feds’ Central Valley Project. In exchange, the farmers who rely on the CVP agreed to relinquish water to fish through a complicated and tentative plan brokered by former Gov. Brown.
The new proposal is a separate proceeding that stems, ironically, from a plan launched by Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama.
In 2016, with fish populations in decline, the Obama administration started taking a fresh look at decade-old environmental restrictions governing the Delta pumps. At the time, administration officials believed Obama would be succeeded by fellow Democrat Hillary Clinton and the environmental rules would be tightened.
Instead, Trump has made it clear that he wants environmental rules streamlined to push more water to the Valley through the Delta pumps. Trump signed a memorandum in October that ordered his staff to review a broad swath of federal water regulations in order to “eliminate all unnecessary burdens” to free up water for human use.