Trump Signs Order Diverting More Water to California Farmers

(CN) – President Donald Trump made good on a campaign promise Wednesday to send more water from Northern California to cities and farmers in the state’s central and southern regions – a move denounced by critics as harmful to endangered species and destined to spur lawsuits on several fronts.

Speaking at an event in Bakersfield, Trump signed a memorandum that will allow the federal government to redirect millions of gallons of water to the Central Valley and Southern California. Trump said that water, managed by a large network of dams, canals, pumps and tunnels, was being “needlessly flushed” into the Pacific Ocean.

“As a candidate for president, I promised to help solve the water crisis that was crippling our farmers due to the chronic mismanagement and misguided policies,” Trump said.

Site of the potential intake for the delta tunnel project in the north Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, near Freeport. (Katie Cahill /CNS)

California Governor Gavin Newsom immediately responded with threats of litigation.

“We will file legal action in the coming days to challenge the federal biological opinions to protect highly imperiled fish species close to extinction,” Newsom said in a statement Wednesday.

Critics argue that diverting more water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, the largest estuary on the West Coast, will deplete water needed to help ensure the survival of endangered salmon, steelhead and delta smelt.

Last December, conservation groups sued the Trump administration over findings on how new rules for operating the Central Valley Project and State Water Project will impact endangered species.

Rachel Zwillinger, a California water policy adviser with the nonprofit Defenders of Wildlife, blasted the biological opinions as “essentially a death sentence for endangered salmon, delta smelt and other iconic species.”

This month, Newsom said he was committed to doubling California’s salmon population by 2050. The governor said he planned to address California’s “water wars” by reaching voluntary agreements between government agencies and water users.

Last year, Newsom axed former Governor Jerry Brown’s $17 billion plan for two 30-mile tunnels that would funnel water around the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to aqueducts that supply farmers and cities farther south. Newsom said he instead favors a less expensive, one-tunnel approach. Many environmental groups remain opposed to even a single tunnel.

The governor has been in talks with the Trump administration over the last several months trying to reach an agreement that would increase water flows to the south while protecting endangered fish.

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

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

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who has sued the Trump administration more than 60 times over policy disputes, said his office stands ready to file more litigation.

“California won’t allow the Trump administration to destroy and deplete our natural resources,” Becerra said in a statement. “We’re prepared to challenge the Trump administration’s harmful attack on our state’s critical ecosystems and environment.”

The Trump administration’s move comes at a time when California has received lower than average rainfall this winter, an event that could prompt state water regulators to consider re-imposing drought restrictions put in place five years ago. The National Weather Service in Sacramento reported Monday that the Sierra snowpack is 58% below normal.

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