The Trump administration on Tuesday unveiled new rules to govern California’s scarce water, committing to send more to farmers in the Central Valley despite warnings from environmental groups that it would imperil endangered species in the fragile San Joaquin Delta.
The rules govern management of the federal Central Valley Project and the State Water Project, two complex labyrinths of dams and canals that corral rain and snowmelt to provide water to more than 25 million Californians and millions of acres of farmland.
An initial review by the national Marine Fisheries Services in July concluded the plan would threaten the existence of some endangered species, including winter-run chinook salmon, according to the Los Angeles Times. But the Trump administration never released that plan.
The report the government did release on Tuesday, known as a “biological opinion,” said the plan “will not jeopardize threatened or endangered species,” clearing the way for it to be implemented early next year. But it’s likely environmental groups will sue to block it.
“I think this biological opinion is the end result of the Trump administration’s junk science and political interference,” said Doug Obegi, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The plan would give water agencies more flexibility on how much water they can pump out of the state’s rivers. When it’s raining a lot, agencies can pump more. When its dry, they would pump less.
Also, the government said it would monitor the location of endangered fish species, including the delta smelt. If the fish are close to the pumps, the agencies would pump less to avoid sucking the fish in and killing them.
“We have a large degree of confidence that we know when fish are in the area, and therefore if we have a cause for concern” pumping would be curtailed, said Paul Souza, regional director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
But Jeffrey Mount, senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California Water Policy Center, said the delta smelt populations are so tiny they are almost impossible to detect.
“One wonders how they will do that,” he said.
Other rules would impact the last natural population of endangered winter-run chinook salmon in the Sacramento River. The fish breed in a cold-water pool behind the Shasta Dam, which is carefully managed by the federal government. If the water gets too warm, the fish die.
In 2014 and 2015, during a severe drought, the reservoir ran out of cold water and most of the salmon died. Current rules require the reservoir to have a certain amount of water in storage to prevent it from running out of cold water. The new rules eliminate that requirement, but pledge to capture more cold water in the winter months to increase the supply.
“Coldwater storage is increased as a result of this new strategy,” said Ernest Conant, regional director for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which manages the dam.
But Obegi called that plan a “recipe for extinction.”
It’s unclear how Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration will respond to the new rules. The Democratic-controlled Legislature passed a law earlier this year seeking to block a lot of these changes. But Newsom vetoed that bill after intense lobbying from the water agencies.
Newsom has challenged the Trump administration on other environmental fronts, including its decision to strip California of the ability to set its own emission standards for cars and trucks.
Lisa Lien-Mager, spokeswoman for the California Natural Resources Agency, said the agency will evaluate the water plan “but will continue to push back if it does not reflect our values.”
“California is, and will continue to be, a leader in the fight for clean air, clean water and endangered species,” she said.