California Wins Battle With Trump Administration About Water and Endangered Species

The San Joaquin-Sacramento Delta      Photo: Fish and Wildlife Service

A federal court on Monday put on hold President Trump’s February order that overturned agency scientists and revised federal water supply plans in California, frustrating a political promise he made to farmers in central California to lift water restrictions for the benefit of agriculture there.  The Trump administration’s new team reversed prior agency scientists and their expert findings that extended endangered species protections to several species of fish that need water to survive in the already heavily altered California rivers and streams routing water from the San Francisco Bay Delta and northern rivers to southern California farmers and cities.

Why This Matters:  This decision is just a temporary hold on the Trump administration’s water grab.  But the time is key for both the species at risk of extinction and for the farmers who will lose out on additional water that they would get to take out of the system for agriculture now, while there is spring runoff happening — water they can’t get back later because it is already flushed through the system.  Ironically, in this lose-lose situation, almost everyone wins.  The fish get water when they need it this year, the State defended science and the rule of law, and the President can blame the state and environmental groups for his failure to keep his promise.  And the farmers and cities are no worse than they would have been otherwise — in a state where water supplies are only declining. 

The Court’s Reasoning

The Sacramento Bee explains what’s at stake.  Both the federal and state governments run pumps that pull water from the North of California and provide it to both farmers in the Central Valley of California and to the big cities in the southern part of the state — to farms covering more than 3 million acres of farmland, and to cities serving 25 million urban residents in Los Angeles and San Diego.  But all that pumping leaves very little water left in streams for salmon and steelhead and a small fish called the Delta smelt and the Endangered Species Act requires that the government ensure they have enough water to keep from going extinct.  In this case, the state of California and salmon fishermen (who want to see salmon populations come back so they can have viable fishing businesses) challenged the way the Trump Administration reviewed the same facts about how much water the fish needed and decided they needed less than in the past, even as drought conditions had worsened.  The judge agreed that there were real issues about the scientific basis for the Trump changes, so he granted a temporary hold for the few key weeks of spring for the fish as they migrate through the rivers.   The Trump administration’s approach was — pardon the pun — too fishy for the judge.

To Go Deeper: This article in CalMatters.com does a good job explaining the complexities involved in California’s Bay Delta water system.

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