Agriculture

Ahead of Thanksgiving, Biden, Newsom admin. press judge to adopt Calif. water restrictions

A coordinated effort between the Biden and Newsom administrations to drop two-year-old environmental rules governing water deliveries to the Central Valley and Southern California reached a new benchmark two days before Thanksgiving.

In a flurry of pre-holiday filings, Federal officials, in consultation with Newsom administration officials, requested that a Fresno-based Federal judge adopt a hastily-arranged plan to govern water pumping in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

At the center of the legal controversy are 2019 biological opinions – environmental rules developed by the U.S. Departments of Interior and Commerce – that govern the operation of the Central Valley and State Water projects within the Delta.

The two-year-old environmental rules were slated to boost south-bound water deliveries due to the transition from a calendar-based pumping schedule to real-time monitoring of endangered fish populations and other conditions.

The biological opinions prompted a wave of environmental lawsuits from a handful of environmental advocacy groups along with the Newsom administration, which simultaneously issued its own updated environmental rules to clamp down on water deliveries for state water contractors.

As the Biden administration seeks to relaunch the scientific work to issue new biological opinions, it is asking Fresno Federal district Judge Dale Drozd to adopt a so-called “interim operations plan” to govern water flows for the next water year.

From a legal standpoint, the so-called “interim operations plan” attempts to halt the pending suits to allow the Biden administration to begin – and hopefully complete – a new set of biological opinions.

The newly-drafted plan would be come operational and supersede the 2019 biological opinions upon a court order.

If ordered, the interim plan for water deliveries through the Federally-operated water system would run through Sept. 30, 2022, the conclusion of the water calendar year.

Among a litany of state and Federal initiatives to be undertaken during the 2022 water year, the interim plan prioritizes water deliveries for municipal and industrial water users on the basis of meeting minimum health and safety requirements.

These water supplies ensure municipalities have sufficient water for residents.

However, the validity of health and safety water calculations has come into question in recent months.

After health-and-safety supplies, Central Valley Project supplies from Shasta Dam are prioritized next for Winter Run Chinook Salmon, then senior water contractors and wildland refuge water users (as prescribed in the Central Valley Project Improvement Act), and then any other uses.

A draft of the interim operations plan, released in mid-October, prompted a wave of opposition on Capitol Hill, with Valley Democratic members and California’s GOP delegation issuing stern condemnation to the plan.

Wednesday, the Friant Water Authority excoriated the plan for failing to be put under any scientific scrutiny.

“The current biological opinions that the [interim operations plan] seeks to replace in 2022 were the product of more than three years of extensive stakeholder engagement, underwent significant scientific scrutiny, and was subject to a full environmental review,” the Fresno-headquartered water agency said.

“By comparison, the IOP has not been subjected to extensive stakeholder engagement, has not undergone any scientific scrutiny, and there has been no environmental analysis or public review, which has denied the public the right to know how these plans will impact their water supply.”

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.