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The focus of President Donald Trump’s visit to Bakersfield Wednesday is expected to be the finalization of controversial federal biological opinions that could lead to more water being diverted from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to farmers in the southern Central Valley and urban areas in Southern California.
People familiar with Delta water matters said an official signature has been the only thing holding up a federal “record of decision” formalizing the biological opinions. Several sources said Trump will likely host a ceremonial signing in Bakersfield that would politically benefit his local allies.
White House representatives have declined to speak publicly about the president’s plan for his visit to Bakersfield.
Finalizing the biological opinions would bring the president closer to his stated goal of providing California farmers more water for irrigation. That would be a boon for local Republican political candidates and for Central Valley farm groups that have been largely supportive of Trump.
A key element of the proposed biological opinions is the use of real-time monitoring of the location of fish in the delta. It’s not certain that such monitoring will allow more water to be sent south, though many say it allows greater flexibility to do so.
Observers say the question now is whether Sacramento would sue to stop Delta water diversions on environmental grounds or let the biological opinion stand — and give federal officials the state water-pumping permit they need — in order to build support for a compromise sought by Gov. Gavin Newsom.
The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday. But Newsom touched on the situation in a letter he sent Monday to David Bernhardt, secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, which is the agency handling finalization of the biological opinion.
Newsom wrote that, since November, state and federal officials have made progress toward ironing out their differences on the Trump administration biological opinions. He pledged continued engagement to resolve the conflict.
“We have not yet fully resolved our differences as federal agencies prepare to take action to activate these new rules,” the governor wrote. “However, we remain committed to working to resolve these remaining differences in coming weeks and months.”
Federal biological opinions issued more than a decade ago have reduced the amount of water diverted from the delta. The existing biological opinions, though applauded by environmentalists who say diverting water threatens endangered fish, have fueled accusations that California politicians are denying Central Valley farmers the water they need to irrigate crops.
The governor has been working with federal officials on a so-called “voluntary agreement” in which state and federal customers of water from the delta would pay to develop 60,000 acres of new wildlife habitat.
An opponent of the federal biological opinions proposed by the Trump administration, Golden State Salmon Association President John McManus, said it’s possible that any new water pumping from the delta could benefit the Central Valley Project, operated by the federal Bureau of Reclamation, at the expense of a parallel system operated by the state.
He said the result is bad for salmon either way because flexibility allowed by the proposed biological opinions could take away the cold water needed to sustain fish eggs.
Jeffrey Kightlinger, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which gets water from the Central Valley Project, said it’s not clear that any new pumping of water will result from the Trump administration’s new biological opinions. He said it’s likely any change will be minor.
Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, executive director of Northern California environmental and community advocacy group Restore the Delta, said she hopes the Newsom administration sues the Trump administration over the biological opinions. She said California’s plan for the delta is only marginally better than that of the Trump administration.
In a preview of Trump’s visit to Bakersfield this week, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, on Sunday told Fox News that the matter comes down to “the security of our food supply, making sure that it is grown in America, that it’s safe and secure.”
“We have a real concern in California because we send most of our water out to the ocean (instead of) sending it down to Southern California to our farmland in the San Joaquin Valley and others,” he said.
“This president,” he continued, “has worked greatly using science, not based on politics but on science, to allow to have more of that water stay with the Californians and America to make sure we’re secure in our food supply as we move forward.”
Editor’s note: This story has been revised to reflect that fish do not lay their eggs in the delta.