BY RYAN SABALOW AND DALE KASLER, Sacramento Bee
NOVEMBER 21, 2019 11:01 AM
Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration said Thursday it will sue the Trump administration over its efforts to push more water through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, saying the federal plan would harm the sprawling estuary and the fragile fish populations that live there.In a 610-page environmental report, Newsom’s administration sketched out its own plan for managing water flows through the Delta, while issuing a separate statement that blasted the Trump plan, which is designed to increase water supplies for San Joaquin Valley farmers, the president’s political allies.
“As stewards of this state’s remarkable natural resources, we must do everything in our power to protect them,” Newsom said in a prepared statement.
The state said it will sue the federal government “protect those species and to protect the state’s interests.” Although the Newsom administration did not mention it on Thursday, one major state interest is the State Water Project and its customer, the giant Metropolitan Water District in Southern California. Newsom’s office has said that increased Delta pumping by the federal government would reduce water deliveries to the project and Metropolitan’s 19 million customers.
Environmental groups said it was welcome news that Newsom was pushing back on Trump’s water plan, given widespread support for the changes from the powerful farm and urban water agencies that pump water from the Delta. But they argued that the state’s alternative proposal for operating the Delta doesn’t go nearly far enough to stave off extinction for fish and other species.
“They’re not even as protective as what’s in place today,” said Doug Obegi, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Although Newsom has sparred with Trump over everything from greenhouse gases to immigration, the governor’s sharp rebuke to Trump’s plan for the Delta — one of the largest environmental issues facing the state — wasn’t a foregone conclusion.
Newsom has tried to reach out to Valley farmers on water issues, and in September he infuriated environmentalists by vetoing Senate Bill 1, which would have used state law in an attempt to block every environmental initiative launched by the federal government since Jan. 20, 2017 — the day President Donald Trump took office.
Newsom’s rationale: SB 1 threatened to undermine a set of tentative compromises, hammered out by his predecessor Jerry Brown, over how the waters flowing through the Delta are allocated between fish and farms. Irrigation districts had threatened to scrap the compromises if SB 1 became law. Most environmental groups, meanwhile, believe the compromises don’t go nearly far enough to help endangered salmon and other fish species that ply the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers.
Newsom’s administration on Thursday reiterated its commitment to the voluntary settlement agreements. “The effort is a potential game changer in that it combines (river) flows with a broader suite of tools,” the administration said.
Federal water and wildlife officials couldn’t immediately be reached for comment Thursday.
The Delta is the hub of California’s enormously complicated north-to-south water delivery network. Dual pumping stations at the south end of the estuary — one run by the federal Central Valley Project, the other by the State Water Project — pull water from the Delta and make deliveries through canals to farms and cities in the southern half of the state. Scientists say decades of over pumping have contributed to the precipitous decline in native Delta fish populations.
The feds’ plan for the Delta, unveiled a month ago by the Trump administration, is designed to push a lot more water through the Delta, fulfilling a pledge Trump made to San Joaquin Valley farmers while campaigning in Fresno three years ago. The plan, developed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service, would overhaul the rules governing the Delta to allow more water to be pumped south.Environmentalists want more water to run its natural course through the Delta and out to the ocean to support Delta smelt and other fish populations facing extinction. Trump administration officials said their plan, based on new scientific findings, allows both fish and farms to prosper.
The plan “will not jeopardize threatened or endangered species or adversely modify their critical habitat,” the administration said last month. Among other things, the feds are proposing that the state and federal government spend a combined $1.5 billion on expanded fish hatcheries and other projects.
In August, The Sacramento Bee and other media outlets reported that after federal scientists concluded that the plan would bring the salmon and killer whales closer to extinction, their superiors ordered them to redo their study to downplay the impact on fish.
Trump administration officials said their final version of the plan was done by “career conservation professionals” acting fairly and in the best interest of fish and water users.
Environmentalists have long been wary of Trump’s plans for the Delta.
David Bernhardt, who has been Interior secretary since April, is a former chief lobbyist for Westlands Water District, a politically influential irrigation district serving farmers across much of the west side of the San Joaquin Valley.
“The grab-all-you-can Trump/Bernhardt/Westlands approach to seizing northern California’s waters is so egregious that the state really had no choice but to challenge it,” John McManus of the Golden State Salmon Association said in an emailed statement.