California water wars would get crazy complicated if Trump administration dives in

Rancher and farmer Todd Sill of La Grange stands outside the Don Pedro Recreation area with a message for visiting Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke on July 20.
Rancher and farmer Todd Sill of La Grange stands outside the Don Pedro Recreation area with a message for visiting Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke on July 20. aalfaro@modbee.com

Anyone who has spent much time in California knows that our water policies and politics are immensely complicated and contentious.

Now the Trump administration wants to muck up the water wars even more.

The Bureau of Reclamation told state officials on Aug. 17 that it wants to renegotiate the landmark 1986 agreement for the sprawling federal and state water projects and how they pump water through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

The goal is to get more water to Central Valley farmers, at the expense of millions of Southern California residents, The Sacramento Bee’s Dale Kasler reports.

This unexpected move follows a threat by the Trump administration to sue over a state proposal, announced in July, to reallocate water in the San Joaquin River and its three tributaries, the Tuolumne, Merced and Stanislaus.

The state says leaving more water in the rivers to flow through the Delta to the ocean would ease an “ecological crisis” for fish. But it would mean less water for farmers and nearly 3 million people who live from the Bay Area to Modesto, so Valley farmers and many local officials are lambasting the proposal. Later this year, the state expects to release a reallocation plan for the Sacramento River watershed.

At the same time, there’s the continuing controversy over Gov. Jerry Brown’s plans for gargantuan tunnels to move water under the Delta to Central Valley farms and to Southern California cities. He says the $20 billion project would help endangered fish and ensure a more reliable water supply, but opponents question its cost and feasibility.

After critics raised a huge stink, legislators canceled a hearing set for last Thursday – the next-to-last day of the session – on extensions to water contracts needed to help finance the tunnels.

All of these debates are heated enough without federal officials adding more fuel by trying to reopen an established, foundational water agreement.

Yes, the federal government should have some say because it built the Central Valley Project, a network of dams, reservoirs, canals, hydroelectric plants and other facilities across 400 miles of central California. The project provides flood protection and supplies water.

It is closely tied to the State Water Project, a 700-mile network of reservoirs, aqueducts and pumping plants that stores and supplies water to more than 27 million people in Northern California, the Bay Area, the San Joaquin Valley, the Central Coast and Southern California. It also irrigates about 750,000 acres of farmland, mostly in the San Joaquin Valley.

Under the 1986 agreement, state and federal officials must release water from their reservoirs for environmental reasons in the Delta and other needs. The Bureau of Reclamation, under Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, wants to keep more water to send to farm districts and other Central Valley Project customers, leaving less for the State Water Project.

And Zinke has some leverage: If a new agreement isn’t made within two years, the federal government could dissolve the 1986 agreement on its own, and that could create chaos.

While Zinke and other Trump officials say the move is about helping farmers, it seems to have a heavy dose of partisan politics. President Donald Trump can claim to have kept the campaign promise he made during a 2016 rally in Fresno to deliver more water to Valley farmers, who have long complained about lower supplies.

The Trump administration is working hand-in-hand with Republican members of Congress, who are using the water issue to hold on to their seats in November.

Rep. Jeff Denham of Turlock hosted Zinke in July to talk about protecting Valley water rights. Denham also pushed an amendment to stop the State Water Resources Control Board from moving forward on the San Joaquin reallocation plan. And Denham is trying to identify himself as a farmer on the Nov. 6 ballot, but faces a challenge to that ballot designation.

Earlier this year, Rep. Ken Calvert of Riverside County tried to put a provision into an Interior Department spending bill that would have banned any state or federal lawsuits against the Delta tunnels – an outrageous legal overreach that would have prevented local officials and groups from challenging various aspects of the project.

As on wildfires and forest management, Trump officials want to demonize conservation groups on water issues. But environmental groups, along with agriculture interests, and state and local officials, have every right to fully participate in the debate. Indeed, they are far closer to these water decisions than D.C. bureaucrats.

In California’s water wars, it’s popular to accuse the other side of a “water grab.” But what the Trump administration is doing looks a lot like a power grab that will make the water conflicts worse.