Luke Ellison holds Delta smelt at UC Davis’ fish laboratory in Byron, near the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta pumping stations. Declining fish populations are at the heart of a controversial state plan to take river water from farms and cities. Randy Pench Sacramento Bee file
Luke Ellison holds Delta smelt at UC Davis’ fish laboratory in Byron, near the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta pumping stations. Declining fish populations are at the heart of a controversial state plan to take river water from farms and cities. Randy Pench Sacramento Bee file

Environment

As fish disappear, Trump administration seeks to pump more California water south

By Dale Kasler And Ryan Sabalow

dkasler@sacbee.com

January 02, 2018 11:18 AM

The Trump administration, teeing up a fight with California regulators, is trying to pump more water through the fragile Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to the southern half of the state despite fresh evidence of the estuary’s shrinking fish population.

A proposal by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to “maximize water deliveries” represents the administration’s first concrete effort to make good on a promise Donald Trump made while campaigning for the presidency in Fresno, where he vowed to deliver more water to San Joaquin Valley farmers and derided protections for endangered fish species.

Trump’s water plan is likely to meet stiff resistance from California officials, who relish fighting the president and spent much of 2017 battling his administration over air pollution, climate change, immigration and a slew of other issues. Experts said the state’s Endangered Species Act and other laws should provide California with ample ammunition to complicate Trump’s efforts to move more water through the Delta.

Reclamation’s proposal, outlined in a regulatory notice last Friday, would bring long-lasting changes to the Central Valley Project, the water network built during Franklin Roosevelt’s administration. The notice said various state and federal regulations have “significantly reduced the water available for delivery south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.” As a result, the bureau said it will “evaluate alternatives that maximize water deliveries.”

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Agricultural districts in the San Joaquin Valley, which comprise the bulk of the Central Valley Project’s customers, welcomed the proposal as a long overdue counterweight to years of stifling restrictions on water pumping.

“In the end, what’s being discussed is ensuring that people and farmers and farmworkers have water,” said deputy general manager Johnny Amaral of the influential Westlands Water District in Fresno and Kings counties. “Pretty simple concept. After all, that’s why the CVP was built, to do that very thing.”

Fresno City Councilman Steve Brandau, who has rented billboards in his city urging Trump to scale back fish protections, said he’s optimistic the president is going to bring more water to the Valley.

“I think the president is hearing from people from the Central Valley,” said Brandau, who grew up in a farm town near Fresno. His billboards featured a picture of Trump and the message, “Mr. President, we need: 1. Water 2. Dams 3. Fish.” The word “fish” is crossed out in red.

Change won’t occur overnight. Reclamation spokeswoman Erin Curtis said the bureau will spend the next year conducting environmental reviews and will “start a dialogue with all of the stakeholders,” including state and federal environmental agencies.

Environmentalists quickly objected to the bureau’s plan, saying it violates a federal law that requires the agency to give equal weight to fish and wildlife when it operates the Central Valley Project. “The science says we need to reduce diversions (from the Delta) and increase protections,” said attorney Doug Obegi of the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco. “The Trump administration is saying damn the fish and damn the rivers and let’s get more water to Westlands.”

The Trump administration’s plan comes at a crucial moment for the Delta, the nexus of California’s complicated north-to-south water delivery system.

Gov. Jerry Brown’s $17 billion plan to build twin tunnels beneath the Delta is in jeopardy because of funding problems. Brown says the tunnels, by rerouting how water flows through the estuary, would help solve never-ending conflicts between fish and water supplies. As it stands now, the pumps are often restricted in order to protect Delta smelt and other endangered fish species, allowing more water to flow out to the ocean.

Fish populations are dwindling in spite of those restrictions, and there are fresh signs that the problems are getting worse. Last week the California Department of Fish and Wildlife disclosed that its regular fall survey of the Delta’s waters turned up a total of two smelt, the lowest in the survey’s 50-year history. The survey is further evidence that the smelt, which once numbered in the millions, are nearing extinction.

Many valley farmers have long argued that the government’s operations in the Delta favor fish over agriculture, and some have little sympathy for the plight of the smelt. Trump, while campaigning in Fresno in 2016, belittled efforts to “protect a certain kind of 3-inch fish,” and some farmers are celebrating the proposal to increase pumping.

“GOOD RIDDANCE! ‘PEOPLE OVER FISH’” prominent Valley farmer Mark Borba said in a Facebook post Monday.

The smelt survey results were noteworthy because they followed the wettest winter in Northern California history, which should have yielded higher smelt numbers. The last time Northern California had a wet winter, in 2011, the fall survey found 343 smelt, up from 29 the year before. Now California is facing the prospect of a dry winter, which could create more environmental stress on the Delta.

Environmentalists say revving up the Delta pumps could do more harm to the estuary, and its fish.

“I don’t know that they’re going to find a lot of extra water without doing violence,” said Jay Lund, director of UC Davis’ Center for Watershed Sciences.

Lund and UC Davis water law expert Richard Frank said the State Water Resources Control Board, which oversees water rights in the Delta, has the authority to make sure all pumping operations – including those conducted by the U.S. government – comply with the state’s environmental protection laws.

The water board, controlled by Gov. Jerry Brown’s appointees, is already holding hearings on proposals that would significantly reduce pumping in order to improve the Delta’s water quality – a move that would fly in the face of Trump’s efforts.

“The state has … a great deal of ability to protect what it sees as the environmental interests,” Lund said.

Officials with the state water board didn’t return messages seeking comment.

Obegi said the state has other powers as well. The federal Central Valley Project Improvement Act, signed into law by the first President George Bush, directs Reclamation to obey California’s environmental laws, he said.

The Trump administration’s pumping proposal is a response to an effort begun in August 2016 by the National Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversee protections for Delta fish, to re-examine decade-old rules that govern pumping operations. When that effort was begun, the Obama administration was still in office and it was widely assumed that the two agencies would strengthen protections for the fish, possibly at the expense of water deliveries.

The Trump proposal also is a response to a controversial law signed by President Barack Obama in late 2016, called the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act. The law directs pump operators to “maximize water supplies for the Central Valley Project and the State Water Project.”

The law is short on details. It also creates additional protections for the Delta’s ecosystem, according to Obegi.

Those protections are contained in the intricacies of how the state and federal governments work in tandem to run water through the Delta. If the state believes the federal government is violating California Endangered Species Act protections by increasing pumping, it’s obliged to reduce its own State Water Project pumping activities, according to Obegi. At the same time, the law signed by Obama in 2016 says the federal government can’t do anything that would force the State Water Project to reduce its water deliveries.

The upshot, Obegi said, is the state could use the Obama law to try to prevent the Trump administration from ramping up pumping activities. But he said there’s so much wiggle room in all of the relevant laws that it isn’t clear whether California would succeed in thwarting Trump’s plan.

“It’s got the potential to be a pretty chaotic year,” Obegi said.

At a rally at downtown Fresno's Selland Arena on Friday, May 27, 2016, Donald Trump downplayed California's "water problem," calling it "ridiculous . . insane" and saying any problems are caused by regulators "shoving the water out to sea." He als

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Dale Kasler: 916-321-1066, @dakasler