Agriculture · Highlight

Bernhardt fires back at Newsom over Calif. water lawsuit

The future of the complicated network of waterways and canals that supplies millions of Californians with water daily could be murky at best, U.S. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt warned Calif. Gov. Gavin Newsom in a letter Monday.

The letter comes on the heels of a busy week in California’s water landscape. Bernhardt spent much of the week in the San Joaquin Valley visiting with water users ahead of a forum hosted by Rep. Devin Nunes (R–Tulare) on Tuesday

The forum featured a detailed breakdown of the recently-issued, now adopted biological opinions, or environmental guidelines, governing the flow of water supplied to farms and communities in the Valley via the Central Valley Project.

A hallmark of the new opinions is the transition away from a rigid, calendar-based method to determine pumping toward real-time monitoring of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta for impacted fish populations.

For Valley communities and Southern California, the new flexibility in pumping will likely translate to greater pumping of water supplies south from the Delta.

After the opinions were released in November, Newsom and other California leaders expressed their opposition to changes and initially threatened litigation over the issuance of the new environmental rules.

During the forum last week and in his letter Monday, Bernhardt emphasized the level of cooperation and collaboration between agencies in his department, the Department of Commerce, and their counterparts with the State of California.

“Given the extensive collaboration in the development of the biological opinions, and the science they are grounded in, I believe your litigation is ill-founded,” Bernhardt said in the letter.

One day after Bernhardt appeared alongside Nunes in Tulare, President Donald Trump flew into Bakersfield’s Meadows Field to celebrate the adoption of those environmental guidelines and sign a new Presidential memorandum to advance new California water priorities.

Minutes before Trump took the stage at a hangar in Bakersfield, Calif. Attorney General Xavier Becerra – on behalf of Newsom’s administration – made good on the threats, filing a Federal suit against the new operations plan for the Central Valley Project.

In it, Becerra alleges the biological opinions violate the Endangered Species Act and National Environmental Protection Act over its handling of fish species in the Delta.

The latest California v. Trump lawsuit raises a major quandary for the Delta: what happens if the state and Federal government cannot coalesce around a single environmental standard for the Delta?

That answer is still to be seen, and while Bernhardt didn’t get into specifics, he didn’t shy away from it either.

“I anticipate the State of California and Department of the Interior will face significant administrative and operational challenges regarding the intertwined operation of [the State Water Project and Central Valley Project],” Bernhardt wrote.

As for the consequences of new water litigation, Bernhardt looped in comments from a letter he received from Newsom.

“Given that tens of millions of people and 3 million acres of farmland depend on the intertwined operation of these projects for their crucial water resources, your expressed commitment to ‘staying engaged and woking to find a shared path forward’ after precipitating this litigation will not be forgotten,” he wrote.

The Sun contacted the Governor’s Office for comment. This story will be updated.

Read Bernhardt’s Letter to Newsom

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.