California Files Lawsuit to Block Trump Administration Delta Water Rules

President Trump ceremonially signed a memo on federal water infrastructure plans at a rally on Feb. 19, 2020 in Bakersfield. (David McNew/Getty Images)

A day after President Trump visited Central Valley growers to celebrate providing more water to farms, California sued his administration to block the new rules that would do so.

The contentious new rules govern how much water can be pumped out of the watersheds of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, which flow from the Sierra Nevada to the San Francisco Bay, controlling irrigation for millions of acres of farmland in the country’s biggest agricultural economy, drinking water for two-thirds of Californians from Silicon Valley to San Diego, and the fate of endangered salmon and other fish.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court in San Francisco, argues that pumping more water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to farms would drive endangered populations of delta smelt, Chinook salmon and steelhead trout to the brink extinction.

“California won’t silently spectate as the Trump administration adopts scientifically challenged biological opinions that push species to extinction and harm our natural resources and waterways,” said California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who filed the suit in partnership with the state's Environmental Protection and Natural Resources agencies.

The rules have been under fire for more than a year, as President Trump first ordered them to be prepared with unprecedented speed, then removed and replaced the federal biologists who had concluded the rules would threaten endangered salmon. Last fall, when the Trump administration announced the plan, officials couldn't promise it would, in fact, deliver more water to agriculture.

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Ernest Conant, regional director for the Bureau of Reclamation, says the plan will have to be in place for awhile before he could say whether it will give more water to farmers.

“It could very well in certain years decrease it,” he said.

The rivers that feed the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, as well as the Delta itself, are home to a variety of state and federally protected fish species, whose numbers have been dwindling since humans began building dams and reservoirs to control flooding and send water throughout the state.

Two massive networks of dams and canals determine how much water gets taken out, with one system run by the state and the other run by the federal government.

“Our goal continues to be to realize enforceable voluntary agreements that provide the best immediate protection for species, reliable and safe drinking water, and dependable water sources for our farmers for economic prosperity,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said in a statement Thursday. “This is the best path forward to sustain our communities, our environment and our economy.”

On Wednesday, Trump visited Bakersfield to fete the rule change, and signed a memo that goes further, directing "the Secretaries of the Interior and Commerce and the Chair of the Council on Environmental Quality to help deliver and develop more water supplies in California’s Central Valley," according to a U.S. Interior Department press release.

'Four More Years'

On a stage adorned with a giant American flag, stacks of produce boxes and large blue tractors on either end, Trump addressed an audience of local supporters and growers who stand to benefit from the directive.

“I’m going to be signing a very important piece of legislation that is going to give you a lot of water and a lot of dam and a lot of everything,” Trump told excited members of the audience. “And you’ll be able to farm your land — you’ll be able to do things you never thought possible.”

Trump was joined onstage by California Republican Reps. Devin Nunes of Tulare and Tom McClintock of Elk Grove, as well as House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and other active and aspiring local Republican politicians. At one point, Trump called up former Central Valley Republican Rep. David Valadao, who was ousted by a Democrat in the 2018 midterm elections and is now running to regain his seat.

Supporters of the president came out to Meadows Field Airport in Bakersfield wearing ‘Trump 2020’ campaign swag (Alexandra Hall/KQED). (Alexandra Hall/KQED)

The event, in a hot, crowded hangar at Meadows Field Airport in Bakersfield, had all the signs of a campaign rally. Chants of “four more years” rang out from a crowd of well over a thousand supporters wearing red "Make America Great Again" hats, "Women for Trump" shirts and "Trump 2020" swag.

In an effort to show he had fulfilled his 2016 campaign promise to deliver more water to Central Valley ranchers, Trump brought several local farmers on stage to talk about the importance of water to the region’s agricultural economy and laud the president’s support of America’s farming families.

The day before the event, officials with the federal Bureau of Reclamation signed a record of decision that formally adopted the biological opinions unveiled by the Trump administration last year, dictating how much and when water can be pumped out of the Delta.

Battles Ahead

It also set the stage for more court battles between the administration, on one side, and environmental groups and the state of California on the other. Environmental groups have fought to limit pumping because of the danger posed to endangered fish.

The administration’s revised biological opinion was unveiled in October 2019, after federal scientists, who had found the Delta water plan would jeopardize endangered salmon, were removed from the project.

A coalition of environmental groups, including the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations and Natural Resources Defense Council sued the administration in December in an effort to stop the plan.

“These new rules sacrifice the Bay-Delta and its most endangered species for the financial interests of the President’s political backers and Secretary Bernhardt’s former clients," NRDC said in a press release following Trump's visit Wednesday. "The Newsom Administration has the tools it needs to protect California from Trump’s latest assault on the environment, and we’re looking forward to working with the Governor to do so.”

Kate Poole, senior director of the Nature Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said that if the administration's plan goes into effect, it will cause significant harm and possibly the extinction of salmon and other species in the Delta.

“What he signed was actually just a memorandum that doesn't really do a whole lot other than say they're going to try to further increase water deliveries even beyond what these biological opinions do. And they're going to pursue more water storage,” Poole said.

Trump's Supporters: He ‘Gets Things Done’

Farmers and other local residents who waited in a long line of ticket holders to see Trump in Bakersfield were ecstatic that he would make time to revisit the Central Valley. Many told KQED they are pleased with the president’s actions on water and his performance overall, as a leader who “gets things done.”

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“We're here to support the Trump administration and their efforts to help us get more local water supply to our growers,” said Aaron Fukuda, general manager of the Tulare Irrigation District.

“These biological opinions that we're looking at, we believe they improve our habitat and bring more water down to our farmers. It's a win-win for everybody.”

Jim Erickson, director of the Madera Irrigation District, and a fourth-generation farmer who grows almonds, olives, grapes, pistachios, oats and prunes, agreed.

“It’s going to give us more flexibility, give us some more water, which we are all in dire need of in California,” Erickson said.

Jim Erickson (left) and Aaron Fukuda (right) are both general managers of local irrigation districts in favor of delivering more water to Central Valley farmers. Both said they planned to vote for President Trump in November (Alexandra Hall/KQED). (Alexandra Hall/KQED)

“He came out, he said he was going to work on this, he listened and he’s doing it,” Erickson added, referring to Trump’s 2016 campaign visit to Fresno when he committed to delivering more water to local ranchers. “I'm hopeful that [the state will] back off and realize that this is good for all of us and keep the economy going here in California.”

Central Valley politicians also reacted to Trump’s actions.

State Sen. Andreas Borgeas, R-Fresno, said he appreciated Trump visiting the San Joaquin Valley and the federal government “finally taking action to provide more water for valley farmers."

"The ball is now in Gov. Newsom's court to provide clean, reliable and ample water supplies to valley farmers and communities,” Borgeas said. “The state must ensure that infrastructure and storage are a top priority. It's simple: no water, no farms, and no food."

Two freshman Democratic congressmen who flipped their districts in the 2018 midterm elections took a more diplomatic stance, rather than committing to one side of the issue.

"The biological opinions needed to be updated with better, newer science," TJ Cox and Josh Harder said in a joint statement, "We would prefer the parties work together in a meeting room rather than square up as rivals in the courtroom. ... We stand ready to help all parties reach a resolution in any way we can."

This story includes additional reporting from Adam Beam of the Associated Press.