California Ready to Fight Feds Over Plan to Put Farms Over Fish in Water War

(CN) – California telegraphed its intention to sue the Trump administration Thursday over water policy in the state, as state regulators say they must take action to protect endangered fish species.

The critically endangered delta smelt. (B. Moose Peterson / USFWS)

The California Department of Water Resources released an environmental analysis that calls for State Water Project managers to prioritize the protection of fish species like Chinook salmon, steelhead and the delta smelt while also ensuring parched farms in the Central Valley get the water they need to grow food.

Environmental analysis under the California Environmental Quality Act comes about a month after the Trump administration released its own rules that committed to deliver more water to the agricultural communities in the center of the state – a bastion of conservatism in liberal California.

California and the federal government share the management of the large network of dams, canals, pumps and tunnels that siphons water from the rivers and streams flowing westward from the snow-laden Sierra Nevada and delivers it to the Central Valley, where the soil is arable but the climate dry.

The Central Valley Project, managed by the federal government, and the State Water Project, administered by California, also furnish water to millions of households and businesses throughout the southern and central part of the state.

California hinted it would pursue legal action in the immediate aftermath of the Trump administration’s bid to bring more water to farmers, which scientists say will imperil several fish species.

“We value our partnerships with federal agencies on water management, including our work together to achieve the voluntary agreements,” said California Secretary for Environmental Protection Jared Blumenfeld. “At the same time, we also need to take legal action to protect the state’s interest and our environment.”

The draft environmental impact analysis released under state environmental law will allow state water managers to rely on analysis of fish populations and other species health in the context of California state law instead of the recently released biological opinions crafted by the federal government

The feds initially reviewed the impact of their proposed changes to fish species like salmon and smelt in July and concluded excess water deliveries to farmers would harm the populations of imperiled species. But the administration pulled that document within two days of its publication, saying it needed additional review.

The Delta viewed from above Sherman Island, with the Sacramento River above and San Joaquin River below. (Photo Credit: WorldIslandInfo.com/Wikipedia)

A new analysis published in mid-October found increased deliveries to farmers would not have a detrimental impact to salmon and other fish.

California water officials pointed to “concern for the scientific rigor” of the federal process and said their plan will reliably provide California farmers with water without sacrificing the health of fish populations.

“This draft points to a more sophisticated and nimble way to manage the State Water Project to improve our ability to protect species and operate more flexibly,” said California water department director Karla Nemeth. “This is essential in order to capture water when it’s available and leave more water when and where fish need it.”

The move represents a departure for the water department, which has historically relied on federal agencies and their biological opinions, and is another illustration of the rupture between the state of California and the federal government under President Donald Trump.

California has sued the federal government more than 60 times since Trump has assumed office, many of which relate to environmental policies.

While California is touting its plan as a more environmentally friendly alternative to the federal plan, some environmentalists say the state isn’t going far enough to protect fish.

“(The plan) appears to be weaker in its protections for the delta ecosystem – including salmon and smelt – than we had hoped to see and than previous operations have provided in recent years,” said Kathryn Phillips, director of the Sierra Club California.

While Phillips expressed trepidation for the plan’s finer points regarding water management, she praised Newsom for pursuing a lawsuit over the biological opinion released in October.

“We appreciate that the Newsom administration is going to challenge the Trump administration’s ridiculously dishonest biological opinion,” she said. “That opinion is nothing more than an extinction plan.”

The Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta is an expansive inland estuary that is home to several unique species, several of which have become significantly imperiled in recent years. It provides drinking water for more than 27 million Californians and irrigation water for approximately 7 million acres of farmland.

But the large ecosystem is also necessary for several species of fish. The delta smelt are vanishingly rare in the delta; a count undertaken by scientists last winter yielded no individual fish for the first time. Two-thirds of the salmon in California pass through the delta on their way to spawning upstream in the various rivers and streams that empty out into the delta ecosystem.

Both state and federal water managers are interested in exploring ways to pump more water during storm events rather than letting water run out to sea. But state managers want to allow officials the opportunity to stop pumping water during times when the volume of water is insufficient to support fish habitat.

State water managers are also calling for scientific study and quantitative analysis for the delta smelt.

California Governor Gavin Newsom said the state is further undertaking a voluntary approach to provide more water to the delta ecosystem and improve environmental conditions.

“We are once again marshaling our collective resources – and building on our record of strong, science-based environmental policies – to chart a new path forward for water policy in California,” Newsom said in a statement Thursday. “As stewards of this state’s remarkable natural resources, we must do everything in our power to protect them.”

%d bloggers like this: