Agriculture · Highlight

Newsom, Calif. sue to block Trump administration’s Valley water boost

It didn’t take long for Gov. Gavin Newsom and California Attorney General Xavier Becerra to make good on their threat of a lawsuit over the Trump administration’s moves to send more water to San Joaquin Valley farms and Southern California.

Becerra announced that California, represented by his office, the California Natural Resources Agency, and California Environmental Protection Agency filed a lawsuit challenging newly-adopted biological opinions governing the operation of the Federally-managed Central Valley Project.

Among other things, the biological opinions replaced rigid, calendar-based restrictions on pumping water through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta by adopting real-time monitoring of fish populations via boat and triggers.

The biological opinions were formally codified on Tuesday when the Bureau of Reclamation issued its record of decision ahead of a visit to Bakersfield by President Donald Trump.

Rules governing the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta have long been fraught with legal wrangling over the balance of needs between Central Valley agriculture and its communities and endangered fish species – including the Chinook salmon and the oft-maligned Delta smelt.

Becerra argues that the Departments of Interior and Commerce issued the new environmental guidelines while allegedly failing to sufficiently safeguard endangered fish species, violating the Endangered Species Act and National Environmental Policy Act.

“California won’t silently spectate as the Trump Administration adopts scientifically-challenged biological opinions that push species to extinction and harm our natural resources and waterways,” Becerra said of the litigation.

Feds to California: See you in court

Since Newsom first threatened litigation over the biological opinions in November, shortly after their release, the Interior Department has steadfastly argued it would succeed on the merits in a court battle.

During a water forum in Tulare on Tuesday, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt entertained a question about potential litigation by the Newsom administration.

“If I were [Newsom and his team], before I would [launch a suit], I would read the opinions – I’d read them personally,” Bernhardt said of the then-hypothetical lawsuit. “Because if he does that he’ll find out that these are grounded in reliable science, that they were well thought out.”

“I honestly think that translates to another reality: that they’re likely to be defensible.”

RELATED: Bernhardt pitches new era of “common sense” on California’s water

Shortly after California’s lawsuit was announced on Thursday, Bernhardt stuck to a similar message.

“Our team of career professionals did a great job using the best available science to develop new operational plans for the coordinated operations of the Central Valley Project and State Water Project,” the Interior Secretary said in a statement. “The governor and attorney general just launched a ship into a sea of unpredictable administrative and legal challenges regarding the most complex water operations in the country, something they have not chartered before.”

“Litigation can lead to unpredictable twists and turns that can create significant challenges for the people of California who depend on the sound operation of these two important water projects.”

Congressional advocates for the newly-adopted biological opinions expressed little surprise in Newsom and Becerra’s legal volley.

“After suffering decades of man-made drought, Central Valley communities finally have relief on the way. And so, like clockwork, the bureaucrats, Democrats, and radical environmentalists are teaming up to rip these communities’ water away from them,” Jilian Plank, chief of staff to Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Tulare), said in a statement Thursday night.

“It’s a textbook example of prioritizing fish over families and farmers.”

Newsom sticks to highwire act on water

Newsom has long tried to maintain support from a strong environmental lobby that is ardently opposed to the new guidelines for the Central Valley Project.

Meanwhile, he is also attempting to keep major water users and agencies at the table to negotiate a resolution to Delta environmental concerns via so-called “voluntary agreements.”

“Our goal continues to be to realize enforceable voluntary agreements that provide the best immediate protection for species, reliable and safe drinking water, and dependable water sources for our farmers for economic prosperity,” Newsom said in the release announcing the suit against the Trump administration.

Based on a framework released by Newsom’s administration, the voluntary agreements would require water users to cough up $5 billion for environmental work and habitat restoration and sacrifice 800,000 to 900,000 acre-feet of water.

Alex Tavlian
Alex Tavlian is the Executive Editor of The San Joaquin Valley Sun and Executive Director of Valley Future Foundation. You can reach Alex at alex.tavlian@sjvsun.com.