| | By Alastair Bland
Few if any environmentalists were surprised last year when the federal government proposed a new pumping plan that would send more Northern California water to farmers and which experts think could drive species extinct, including winter-run Chinook salmon and Delta smelt.
But in the 12 weeks since two federal agencies signed off on the proposal as environmentally sound, watershed and fishery advocates are concerned that Gov. Gavin Newsom hasn't stepped forward in defense of the state's natural resources. Far from doing so, his administration has presented a Delta pumping plan of its own that legal experts say could lead to accelerated diversions, has vetoed legislation aimed at protecting state laws from federal undoing, and has shown a political alignment with powerful farmers that environmentalists say are sucking the life out of the Delta and the rivers that feed it.
To Tom Stokely, the water and salmon policy analyst for the group Save California Salmon, Newsom's stance on the state's highly political water feuds has been a letdown.
"He's a complete disappointment on water policy, and it appears he's in the pocket of Westlands Water District and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California," Stokely said. "At the rate he's going, he's likely going to be responsible for the extinction of several species of salmon in California."
Another environmental advocate, the California program director for Defenders of Wildlife Kim Delfino, remains cautiously optimistic on Newsom.
"The jury's still out," she said. "He's made some promises on protecting California's environment, and we're waiting to see how he acts on them."
When Newsom took office last January, the former San Francisco mayor and state lieutenant governor seemed a promisingly liberal figure who would enforce state environmental laws, especially in the face of the Trump Administration, at odds now for years with California leaders, politics, and values. For instance, almost immediately after becoming governor, he silenced discussions over the controversial Delta tunnels, opposed by most environmentalists, by revoking a key state permit. The tunnels are now being reconceived as a single-tube conveyance. Newsom has also defended climate change policies initiated by his predecessor Jerry Brown.
However, Newsom seems to be buckling from pressure from powerful farmers who rely for irrigation on the federally managed system of pumps and canals called the Central Valley Project. In September, a proposed law, Senate Bill 1, came to Newsom's desk. SB1 was intended as an environmental protection weapon against the Trump Administration, which was already maneuvering to send more water to its dependent farmers. Basically, SB1 would have guaranteed that if the president's team tried to undermine state laws with alternative federal laws of weaker environmental rigor, the state laws would remain in place (and trump Trump's, so to speak). For instance, it would have forced the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which runs the Central Valley Project, to abide by the state-level Endangered Species Act. This would have limited the amount of water available for pumping from the Delta, which is experiencing an ecological implosion as a queue of native species advances toward extinction.
Water users, including large urban providers and farming districts — notably Westlands, the dry region northwest of Fresno — vehemently opposed SB1, while environmentalists, salmon fishery advocates, social justice leaders, and others favored it. Surprising many of his constituents, Newsom vetoed SB1.
"That was incredibly disappointing," said John McManus, president of the Golden State Salmon Association.
Now, environmentalists contend that the Trump administration is trying to hack into the share of water that is legally required to flow through the Delta.
"SB1 would have prevented all this," McManus said.
Already, the Delta pumps — state and federal — remove 4 to 5 million acre-feet of water per year from the estuary — almost one-fifth the water that enters the Delta. The new pumping plan, unveiled by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation a year ago, could increase federal Delta exports by
between 700,000 acre-feet and a million acre-feet per year. That would put Delta pumping rates back in the 6-million-acre-foot-range — the level of water exports that preceded the mid-2000s collapse of Central Valley Chinook salmon and the two-year closure
of the commercial fishery.
The governor's office threatened to sue the federal government in November if it implemented its pumping plan, which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service vouched for in two War and Peace-sized documents called biological opinions.
However, a few weeks after the governor's announcement that he would litigate, Westlands Water District — potentially a major beneficiary of boosted Delta diversions — threatened in an email from its general manager that it would walk away from ongoing negotiations on voluntarily reducing Delta exports if Newsom carried out his threat to sue. To the disappointment of fish and river advocates, Newsom's office still hasn't filed the lawsuit.
"The longer they go in not filing, it makes us worry," Delfino, at Defenders of Wildlife, said.
McManus said that two months of silence following an announced intent to sue is worrisome.
"We sued right away," he said, referring to a coalition of environmental groups that filed a suit on Dec. 2, 2019, contending that the federal biological opinions violate endangered species protections.
"It would greatly help the cause to have the state shoulder-to-shoulder with us in court," McManus added.
Newsom's silence on the litigation front has environmentalists worried, but another state action has them totally confused: Almost the same day that Newsom threatened to sue the federal government for its plan, the California Department of Water Resources released an environmental analysis of the pumping proposal that essentially supported the federal project.
"You have these different agencies that are not on the same page when it comes to the state's environmental standards," Delfino said.
Experts say that existing laws basically obligate Newsom to push back against the federal pumping plan. Jeffrey Mount, a senior fellow with the Public Policy Institute of California, says the Central Valley Project cannot legally operate at a higher throttle.
"The Central Valley Project
relies on collaboration with
the State Water Project, and if the State Water Project can't meet the requirements of the state Endangered Species Act, it hits a wall," Mount said. He added that it's in the state's power to enforce water quality and flow standards on the federal government.
Jon Rosenfield, a scientist with the watchdog group S.F. Baykeeper, said the federal plan leaves the Newsom administration with two legal options — either cut back on its own water deliveries by an equal volume to mitigate against the expected increase in federal water deliveries, or force the Bureau of Reclamation into compliance with state laws.
"The state has its own Endangered Species Act, and it has its own responsibility to protect certain species," Rosenfield said.
Some of those responsibilities come from the state's Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan. First issued in 2006 by the State Water Quality Control Board, the plan set strict baseline levels on how much water must be allowed to flow into the Delta, if not all the way to San Francisco Bay, to protect fish and wildlife and other ecological functions. In 2018, the water board started an update process for these standards, calling on water users to leave at least
55 percent of the San Joaquin River's natural flow volume in the river channel, all the way to the Delta.
Farming groups objected. So did San Francisco Mayor London Breed and the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, in a surprising political alignment by one of the state's most liberal cities.
But a year-and-a-half later, the Bureau of Reclamation is ignoring the water board's order. More troubling to fish and river advocates is the fact that Newsom's administration seems to be doing so, as well.
"There should be nothing stopping the state from enforcing these standards," Rosenfield said. "The analysis is done, the law is clear, it's not a lack of money." The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Marine Fisheries Service, and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife all weighed in on updating the Water Quality Control Plan, said Rosenfield, who noted that the Water Quality Control Plan "is 11 years overdue."
"They all said we need more flows," he said. "Everything needed to get the plan done is in place, so what's stopping them?"
It could be the governor's office, though Rosenfield says he's "still in a wait-and-see mode."
"Gov. Newsom likes to cast himself as the leader to the resistance to Donald Trump's environmental assault, and we're still waiting to see how he'll act," Rosenfield said.