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California’s rivers are under assault by feds, and the state isn’t helping much

Earlier this month, President Donald Trump continued gas-lighting the public in a Twitter rant about “bad environmental laws” that supposedly limit water available to fight California’s wildfires. Fire officials immediately rejected the claim.

Don’t mistake these tweets as just one more illustration of our president’s ecological illiteracy. They reflect a comprehensive attack by his administration and anti-environment Republicans in Congress on the health of California’s rivers, water quality and fisheries.

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For example, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke recently told California regulators that he may sue to exempt his agency from new water quality standards for the San Francisco Bay estuary, and Congress is considering parallel legislation. Congress is also attempting to exempt the costly Delta tunnels project from review by state and federal courts. The administration recently unveiled plans to gut the Endangered Species Act, a critical reason why California’s Chinook salmon haven’t disappeared completely.

Will California hold the line against this federal assault? Unfortunately, no.

While Gov. Jerry Brown deserves credit for resisting federal plans to eliminate climate change and energy efficiency initiatives, state agencies display some of the same backwards logic on river, water quality and fisheries.

Decades of scientific research underpin the State Water Resources Control Board’s finding that current river flows in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta are insufficient to protect fisheries and recreational opportunities. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife found substantial evidence that more natural flows are vital to the health of the estuary and the millions of people who rely on it for water, food, employment and recreation.

But proposed changes to flow standards for the San Joaquin River and its tributaries, which the water board once again postponed adopting this month, are far below what its own findings indicate will be necessary to restore California’s most beleaguered rivers. This decision and others would essentially maintain the status quo, with little more than half of the Central Valley’s runoff making it to the Bay in most years. The result will be persistently poor Delta water quality, declining fisheries, and the continued slide towards extinction of a half dozen native fishes.

To make matters worse, the Department of Fish and Wildlife wants so badly to reach a deal with water districts, that it is willing to ignore its own scientists and undermine existing legal protections for the environment. In a letter to the water board, the department offered to support voluntary agreements with water districts even if those pacts required less water to remain in the rivers than the board proposed and even if they reduced flows that currently reach the bay. This is a recipe for the permanent loss of benefits that the public derives from a functioning San Francisco Bay watershed.

Make no mistake: California’s rivers, the San Francisco Bay estuary and our endangered fish and wildlife are in the federal and state crosshairs. The antipathy from the Trump administration is predictable; for our state agencies to fail those same ecosystems is shameful.

Gary Bobker is program director at The Bay Institute, a nonprofit that protects the San Francisco Bay. He can be contacted at

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