Feds Roll Back Fish Protections to Send More Northern California Water South

(CN) – The Trump administration on Tuesday weakened federal regulations aimed at protecting a variety of fish species that have seen their numbers dwindle as California continues to move millions of gallons of water from its water-rich north to the thirsty farms of the Central Valley.

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

The move angered environmentalists who view it as another instance of President Donald Trump placing politics over environmental law. But it likely gladdened California agribusinesses, which remain a bastion of support for the Republican president in the Golden State.

Two biological opinions released by the federal government Tuesday will pave the way for water managers to ship more water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to the Central Valley, one of the most agriculturally productive areas in the United States.

Environmental organizations said the increase in water deliveries will harm fish species like Chinook salmon, and the delta smelt.

The announcement comes just one day after a September count by scientists found zero delta smelt in their historical habitat. Chinook salmon have also suffered from historically low counts and were added to the National Marine Fisheries Service list of overfished species in August.

“The new rules ensure great damage to California’s environment, especially to the state’s native salmon runs and the family jobs tied to them,” the Golden Gate Salmon Association said in a statement. “The new rules could go into effect late this winter or early spring of 2020 and are sure to make worse pollution and ecosystem health problems in San Francisco Bay and the delta.”

However, the Trump administration said the new regulations will not unduly harm fish species in the delta and that increased deliveries will not harm 15 terrestrial species identified in the biological opinion as imperiled.

But critics point to political pressure driving the scientific determinations listed in the opinions, noting a team assembled by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation issued a 1,000-page document that concluded increased deliveries would have a detrimental impact to imperiled species including species of salmon, steelhead and killer whales.

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

The document was pulled two days after it was published, and a new team was assembled. The current opinions contained no findings that increased deliveries would hurt vulnerable marine species.

“These opinions, however, have the smell of manipulated science, an Orwellian finding that ‘fish don’t need water,’” said Tim Stroshane, policy analyst for Restore the Delta.

The two biological opinions could prompt a lawsuit, as California has persistently fought previous iterations of Trump administration’s environmental rollbacks. However, it is not clear California will do so now: Governor Gavin Newsom has said his team will review the opinions before deciding on a legal challenge.

Part of his political calculation includes appeasing California’s powerful water districts, which are in favor of increased deliveries.

“It is beyond time to update these guidelines from those that were developed over a decade ago,” said Jeffrey Kightlinger, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. “These opinions advance the much-needed approach of managing the delta based on real-time conditions and real-time monitoring of important fish species.”

Kightlinger and proponents of the new opinions say water managers should be allowed to pump additional water when imperiled fish are not in the delta and should refrain from doing so during key migratory periods.

This so-called flexibility is the bedrock of the new opinions, drawing praise from farmers and water managers and the ire of environmentalists who say it is only a camouflage to cover the further degradation of marine ecosystems to benefit private industry.

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