Biden and Newsom race to thwart Trump in California water wars

SACRAMENTO, California — President Joe Biden and Gov. Gavin Newsom are racing to protect vulnerable Chinook salmon and Delta smelt in California’s main water supply before a possible second Trump presidency.

Former President Donald Trump vowed this year to send more water to drought-weary, Republican-leaning farmers if he is reelected. Biden and Newsom are trying to thwart the move that could send endangered fish closer to extinction by overhauling Trump-era rules before the end of 2024.

The Biden administration is on track to bake in more protections for fish in the way state and federal officials operate the 400-mile-long set of reservoirs, pumps and canals that moves water (and kills fish) around the state by Dec. 6, according to a federal agency schedule obtained by POLITICO. The schedule leaves only two weeks for public review.

“We do want it done at the end of this administration, and that’s the commitment that we’ve gotten,” Karla Nemeth, California’s director of water resources, said in an interview.

Republicans are already pushing back.

“Obviously, they’re being rushed for political purposes,” Rep. David Valadao, a Republican from the agriculturally rich district north of Bakersfield, said in an interview. “They know that it’s not going to be good. So that’s why they’re being so secretive.”

Complaints by farmers in the conservative-leaning Central Valley about a squeeze on irrigation water that often forces them to leave fields empty have long fed Republican talking points. This year, the state and federal government’s limited water deliveries despite the past two wet winters have given Trump additional fodder.

“They have so much water,” Trump said at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Maryland in February, recounting an interaction with an unnamed California congressmember: “I said, ‘I see you have a drought.’ They said, ‘No, we don’t have a drought. We have so much water you don’t know what to do.’ But they send it out to the Pacific. We’re not going to let them get away with that any longer.”

For top Democrats in deep-blue California, water is a key front in their mission to “Trump-proof” environmental protections ahead of the election. Newsom has built a national profile as a chief antagonist to Trump, who has made California a frequent target and riled his base against policies like its nation-leading electric vehicle mandates.

The division of supply for California’s main water hub, the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, is a perpetual political football.

At stake are declining populations of endangered fish like Chinook salmon, which struggle in warm and sluggish waters or get caught up in the pumps, and the day-to-day operations of a massive public plumbing system that captures water in the wetter northern part of the state to supply some 25 million Californians’ taps and the country’s biggest producers of nuts, vegetables, fruit and beef.

Trump stayed true to a campaign promise when he changed Obama-era rules in order to send more water to farmers four years ago, after tapping a powerful lobbyist for Central Valley growers, David Bernhardt, as interior secretary to oversee the effort. But environmental groups and the Newsom administration immediately sued. Since then, state and federal officials have had to adopt court-mandated temporary plans every year while negotiating something more permanent.

Now, it’s the Biden administration’s turn to rewrite the rules, which both the California-run State Water Project and the federally run Central Valley Project follow in an effort to coordinate their joint operations.

Bureau of Reclamation spokesperson Mary Lee Knecht said in an email the anticipated federal listing of longfin smelt as endangered and the court-ordered interim plans warrant completing the new rules within the schedule.

For California, the upside of having finished rules in hand is that they could help bolster its legal defense if Trump tries to redo them again, said California’s Nemeth.

“It matters that they’re complete,” she said.

She’s also already considering how to lean on California’s existing state protections that go further than the federal ones.

“It seems likely that a different federal administration would reopen things and take another look,” Nemeth said. “We would still have our California permit, so that then becomes the driver.”

Meanwhile, California Republicans in Congress are seeking to codify Trump’s version of the rules. Valadao, also a dairy farmer, authored the language because Trump’s rules made it easier to send more water south, he said.

“I’ve got farmers all throughout the Valley that literally are running out of water,” said Valadao. “It was not a dramatic change, but it was a change in the positive direction for us.”

The bill’s supporters include the powerful Westlands Water District and other Central Valley irrigators, some of whom testified in support at a House Natural Resources Committee hearing in Tulare, California, last spring.

“It’s good public policy to support farming communities,” said Westlands board Director William Bourdeau, also executive vice president at nut, fruit and vegetable-producing Harris Farms, at the hearing. “It’s in our national interest.”

The language got dropped from the budget bill earlier this year, but Valadao said he would keep trying to pass it as a rider — and he could get a lot more help in a lame-duck session or if Republicans sweep Congress this fall.

The interim is making no one happy and puts both Newsom and Biden in an awkward spot.

The flip-flopping, a sign of the intractability of California’s water wars as much as it is a sign of increasing polarization, has exhausted farmers and environmentalists alike. The Biden administration’s rewrite involved more than two and a half years of consultation, modeling and analysis, said Bureau of Reclamation spokesperson Knecht.

“There has been an endless cycle of consultation after consultation, and that is a huge drain,” said Scott Petersen, the water policy director at the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority, which delivers water from the federal Central Valley Project to farmers. “It’s important this process be done right and not be driven by political timelines.”

It’s not simple. The rules for the projects have made good political talking points but they are so complicated that partisan differences come down to things like flow rates for a specific species or where in a river to set a temperature gauge. And it’s difficult to tease out the rules’ impacts amid all the incremental back-and-forth.

“I think there are some water users in the system that think that if there’s a change in administration that there’ll be a wholesale change in how business is done here in California water, and I would disagree with that assessment,” said Jennifer Pierre, the general manager of the State Water Contractors, which get water from the state-run system in the Delta.

Environmentalists claim the yearly plans are only minorly more protective of fish than the Trump rules and call them “Trump-lite.” They’ve also assailed Newsom for decisions to pipe water out of the sensitive Delta region they say have caused populations of fish like salmon and sturgeon to plummet.

“These fish are getting more and more endangered,” said Jon Rosenfield, senior scientist at the San Francisco Baykeeper. “They need actual protections that biologists approve, not some negotiated interim insufficient protections that a court approves every year.”

Ashley Overhouse, an attorney with Defenders of Wildlife who is officially participating in the negotiation, called the Trump-era rules “not based on the best available science and the result of political interference.” But she’s also wary of the Biden administration’s rush to finish new rules this year because she will have to review thousands of complex pages in two weeks.

“While we are supportive of that effort, it’s a Herculean effort,” said Overhouse. “We will do our best.”

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