In the final days of 2017, President Donald Trump’s administration announced it would consider sending as much water as possible from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to farmers and cities to the south. The notice comes as a follow-up to a speech Trump made in Fresno during his presidential campaign, when he condemned the downstream flow of river water into the ocean as “insane.”
While the state’s agricultural community has welcomed the proposal, issued by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation on December 29, fishery advocates have not. They warn that pumping more water out of the Delta will threaten the survival of imperiled salmon runs, as well as the critically endangered Delta smelt.
“Chinook salmon and other fish and wildlife species native to California are already teetering on the brink of extinction because too much water is being diverted from the Delta,” said John McManus, executive director of the Golden Gate Salmon Association, which lobbies to protect rivers, salmon and fishers. He said further reducing the amount of water flowing through the Delta could directly reduce the survival of young salmon, which are born in the upper reaches of the Central Valley’s rivers and depend on strong outflows to safely reach the sea.
Erin Curtis, a spokesperson for the Bureau of Reclamation, says her agency will collaborate with federal and state fishery agencies to ensure that endangered species are not harmed by changes to pumping operations in the federally run Central Valley Project, which she says could occur within a year.
In its late-December “Notice of Intent,” the bureau described a plan “to maximize water deliveries and optimize marketable power generation.” Following this would require “potential modifications to the operation of the Central Valley Project, in coordination with California’s State Water Project.” The Central Valley Project is a system of pumps and canals that handle about half of the water that is diverted from the Delta. The State Water Project, operated by the California Department of Water Resources, also exports Delta water and sends it mostly to cities.
The Trump administration’s bid to take more water from the Delta, which would mostly benefit farmers on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley, could cause friction between different regulating agencies. The State Water Resources Control Board has considered reducing total pumping by updating its Water Quality Control Plan, a document aimed in part at protecting salmon and other fish. In 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service discussed taking formal action to boost struggling salmon populations.
Doug Obegi, a water law attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, says the Trump administration’s intent to maximize exports could violate several laws.
“I’m skeptical that what they’re trying to do is even legal,” he said.
McManus and Obegi said they expect strong opposition from environmental groups – and possibly a lawsuit – to halt the plan.
That the bureau has taken up such an objective is hardly a surprise to Obegi, McManus and other environmental watchdogs. They have pointed out that David Bernhardt, formerly a lawyer and lobbyist who represented Westlands Water District in the Joaquin Valley – the largest agricultural water district in the country – now works as deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior. That position holds authority over operations at the Bureau of Reclamation, as well as the Fish and Wildlife Service. In May, more than 150 environmental groups signed a letter opposing Bernhardt’s nomination, arguing that his ties to mining, development and energy industries create conflicts of interest that inhibit “his ability to act in the public interest.”
In an email exchange, Curtis said her agency will “review and consider modifications to regulatory requirements” currently guarded by the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service.
In other words, the agency is considering overhauling existing environmental laws to allow for more water diversions.
Curtis said restricting pumping so far hasn’t helped fish.
“Despite severe restrictions on water operations under the current Biological Opinions, fish populations worsened,” she said.
Fish advocates have argued that this is largely because agencies have not fully complied with those restrictions.
Obegi speculated that, if the bureau manages to increase its pumping limits, state water suppliers may reduce their own water diversions to help keep total exports within the limits of overarching environmental objectives – especially fishery protections. Such an outcome, Obegi said, could create strife between state and federal water agencies, and the user groups they serve.
The State Water Resources Control Board, the top dog in regulating California’s water supply system, said it would not comment on the matter. The Department of Water Resources did not respond to a request for comment.
The Bureau of Reclamation’s bid to change its water diversion program goes back to 2016, when the Obama administration discussed modifying pumping operations. Obegi says the implication at the time was that water pumping would be reduced. The Trump administration, Obegi said, has reversed that original intent.
On November 28, the bureau’s regional director David Murillo emailed a draft of the new proposal to NRDC. A week later, NRDC replied with a letter arguing that the agency’s objective was “inconsistent with Reclamation’s legal obligations under the Endangered Species Act, [National Environmental Policy Act] and the Central Valley Project Improvement Act.”
The letter explained that the CVPIA requires the Bureau of Reclamation to give equal priority to delivering water to people and to providing enough to sustain abundant fish and wildlife populations. This law has already been essentially ignored by water managers since its passage in 1992. The law requires doubling of naturally produced fish populations from historic levels, a goal that has come nowhere close to being realized.
Instead, salmon numbers have declined, at times hitting record lows. The winter-run Chinook, once phenomenally plentiful, is nearly extinct, and the fall-run Chinook crashed in 2009, just three years after Delta exports hit record highs. Today, the fall run remains abundant enough to be fished only thanks to intensive fish hatchery support.
McManus also points out a strong correlation between high river flows and healthy fish populations.
“It’s really clear – two years after we get heavy rain and snowfall we always get a boost in adult salmon numbers in the ocean,” he said. “The reason is simple: The increased flows deliver baby salmon to the ocean, and they eventually become adult salmon.”
Curtis said the Bureau of Reclamation has yet to draft detailed plans for how it might maximize water deliveries and power generation.
“We are asking the public to help us as we consider what alternatives to analyze to accomplish this goal,” she said.
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