President Donald Trump’s administration rolled out an aggressive plan Tuesday to ship more water from the Delta to farmers in the San Joaquin Valley, a move that’s certain to trigger lawsuits by environmentalists concerned about endangered fish species.
The move, fulfilling vows Trump made as a candidate and as president, potentially sets up another confrontation with California officials. State officials have previously warned that Trump’s plan would hurt the fish that ply the Delta — and force the state to cut back its own water deliveries through the Delta to make up for the feds’ actions.
Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration declined to offer an immediate judgment on the Trump administration’s plan. Lisa Lien-Mager, a spokeswoman for the California Natural Resources Agency, said: “We will evaluate the federal government’s proposal, but will continue to push back if it does not reflect our values.”
Federal officials said their plan was finalized only after months of talks with state officials.
The administration’s plan consists of hundreds of pages of technical “biological opinions” from scientists at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service that will serve as a blueprint for how water will be funneled through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta — and how much will be pumped south to Valley farmers. The new rules wouldn’t take effect until January at the earliest.
The administration insisted its plan, while designed to deliver more water to the Valley, will protect Delta smelt, Chinook salmon and other fish that are listed under the Endangered Species Act.
The plan “will not jeopardize threatened or endangered species or adversely modify their critical habitat,” the administration announced.
Under the current system, which has been in place for a decade, the state and federal pumping stations in the south Delta sometimes have to be shut off to safeguard fish, allowing water to run out to sea. Trump administration officials said the existing rules rely on rigid and outdated scientific standards that limit pumping operations without really helping fish, whose numbers have declined dramatically in recent years.
Federal officials said they can’t estimate how much additional water their plan will generate for south-of-Delta water agencies. But they promised to strike a balance between human and environmental needs.
“We have a plan that is much better for fish, farms and communities,” said Ernest Conant, regional director of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which runs the federal government’s Delta pumping stations near Tracy.
Among other things, the fisheries agencies already “have boats on the water several times a week” to make sure nearly-extinct smelt and other fish aren’t in harm’s way, said Paul Souza, regional director of the Fish and Wildlife Service. The plan also lays out a strategy for storing more cold water in Shasta Lake, which will help the salmon population as it’s released into the Sacramento River.
Trump’s plan calls for an estimated $1.5 billion for habitat restoration projects, enhanced fish hatcheries and other programs to prop up fish populations. Conant said funding would come from the state and federal governments in roughly equal amounts.
Critics in the environmental community, however, said fish populations will suffer even more as additional water is moved south and fish get sucked into the pumps.
“It looks like this administration is trying to shut us down again — permanently,” said John McManus, president of the Golden State Salmon Association, which represents commercial and recreational fishermen. Defenders of Wildlife said it plans to take the administration to court to block the decision.
In August, The Sacramento Bee and other media outlets reported that after federal scientists concluded that the plan would bring the salmon closer to extinction, their superiors ordered them to redo their study to downplay the impact on fish.
But federal officials rejected any suggestions Tuesday that the final version reflected pressure from above. Souza said the plan was the work of “career conservation professionals.”
Gov. Newsom vs. Trump
The release of the biological opinions could put Gov. Gavin Newsom in an awkward spot. His administration has shown disdain for practically every Trump initiative, and pledged originally to fight Trump’s Delta plan, saying the state’s “commitment to environmental values is unsurpassed.”
The Delta plan creates other potential headaches for the state. The State Water Project and the federal government’s Central Valley Project both move water through the Delta to their respective customers — mainly Valley farmers for the feds and millions of urban Southern Californians for the state.
If the feds push more water through the pumps, the state could have to leave more water in the Delta to comply with state environmental laws, meaning there would be less water available for the State Water Project.
Yet it wasn’t immediately clear whether Newsom would try to kill the Trump plan. The Democratic governor has tried to forge compromises with Valley farmers on water issues. In September he infuriated environmentalists by vetoing SB 1, a bill designed to negate every environmental policy proposed by Trump. His reasoning: SB 1 was so rigid that it would have killed a delicate truce between environmentalists and agriculture on reallocating the state’s major rivers.
Trump has been adamant about his desire to help the Valley, a Republican stronghold that is chronically scrambling for water. His Interior secretary, David Bernhardt, is a former lobbyist for Westlands Water District — the Valley’s largest agricultural water user.
Just about a year ago, he signed a presidential memorandum directing agencies to speed up their review of rules governing the movement of water throughout California.
“I hope you’ll enjoy the water you have,” he told a group of Republican Valley congressmen as he signed the memorandum.
During his lone 2016 campaign appearance in Fresno, he belittled environmental rules that “protect a certain kind of 3-inch fish,” a reference to the nearly-extinct fish.
Farm groups applauded the new Delta plan. “This is the dawn of a new science-based approach to water and ecosystem management,” said Mike Wade of the California Farm Water Coalition. “We are anxious to put these new policies into practice and expect to see a positive response for water users and the environment in the years to come.”
Congressional Republicans from California also chimed in. The new plan will “help ensure our constituents receive the water they are entitled to or contract and pay for,” said a group of seven congressmen, including Devin Nunes, Tom McClintock and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, in a joint statement.
Congressional Democrats — including U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, considered a leader on water issues — said they would take a wait-and-see approach.
Emily Cadei of the McClatchy Washington bureau contributed to this story.