New Federal Water Rules Will Boost Delta Water Exports, Imperil Salmon

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SAN FRANCISCO — The federal government, led by former Westlands Water District and oil industry lobbyist and current Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, on October 22 released a new set of controversial rules allowing much greater water exports from the Delta to San Joaquin Valley agribusiness interests that will imperil Chinook salmon and other endangered fish species in California.

Public trust advocates say the set of new Endangered Species Act permits (biological opinions) will significantly weaken existing federal protections for salmon and other endangered species in the San Francisco Bay-Delta Estuary. These biological opinions determine the long-term operation of the Central Valley Project and State Water Project and set the allowed levels for water exports to Southern California and the San Joaquin Valley, according to Restore the Delta (RTD).

Paul Souza, Regional Director for the US Fish and Wildlife Service; Barry Thom, NOAA Fisheries Regional Administrator; and Ernest Conant, Director of the Mid Pacific Region of the Bureau of Reclamation, hosted a media call to discuss the new biological opinions. Maven’s Notebook has transcribed the call.

Thom and Sousa discussed the modifications to Delta operations and Shasta Dam operations in the call.

“When it comes to pumping in the Delta, that has been a concern,” stated Thom. “BOR has committed to keep the pumping and fish impacts in the Delta at or below the levels we saw in the previous biological opinion. They have also committed to increased steelhead monitoring for fish coming out of the San Joaquin.”

“Now turning to some of the important modifications, I’ll start with Delta operations,” said Souza. “This has long been a cause for concern about fish being pulled into the pumps and also restrictions on pumping for water supply. We’ve been able to create a much smarter approach that focuses on real time management. We have tremendous new science now that we didn’t have a decade ago.”

Agribusiness organizations applauded the release of the new biological opinions, while conservation, tribal, public interest and fishing groups disagreed with Souza and Thom’s assessment that the new rules would protect Delta smelt and winter-run Chinook salmon.

Opponents of the new biological opinions point out that the new biological opinions increase water exports to agribusiness and manipulate science at enormous risk to imperiled Chinook salmon and other fish driven into decline by decades of already massive water diversions.

Environmentalists, Tribal leaders and fishermen are expected to challenge the new biological opinions in court.

Tim Stroshane, policy analyst for Restore the Delta said, “While there’s still much to review in these opinions, we see immediately that the Trump Administration intends to follow through on its promise to maximize exports from the Delta to San Joaquin valley agribusiness and southern California. These opinions however have the smell of manipulated science, an Orwellian finding that ‘fish don’t need water.’”

While the group will be conducting an in-depth reading of the new biological opinions in the days ahead, they see that they fail to protect Delta communities and fisheries because:

  • They allow for increased exports in summer and autumn creating conditions for the proliferation of harmful algal blooms (HABS) which are a public health threat
  • ESA protections are tied to water quality in the Delta; (Bay-Delta flow standards have not been permanently set by the State Water Resources Control Board)
  • They are not calendar based
  • They do not protect salmon and smelt unless fish show up at the pumps; they are reactive not protective of species in serious decline
  • They allow for hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of additional water exports from the Bay-Delta and play games with carry-over storage.

The Golden State Salmon Association (GSSA), formerly the Golden Gate Salmon Association, also weighed in on the new Trump administration rules.

“The new rules ensure great damage to California’s environment, especially to the state’s native salmon runs and the family jobs tied to them,” according to a statement from the GGSA. “The new rules could go into effect late this winter or early spring of 2020 and are sure to make worse pollution and ecosystem health problems in SF Bay and the Delta,”

“The Trump administration’s new rules conclude that operation of the massive system of dams, canals, and pumps that capture water from northern California salmon rivers and channel and divert it to the western San Joaquin pose no jeopardy to endangered and threatened wildlife, including salmon. This directly contradicts a previous jeopardy finding made by the National Marine Fisheries Service in July.”

GSSA pointed out that the scientists who wrote that July document were reassigned and prevented from working on the documents release. “No one disputes the new rules are the Trump administration’s attempt to make good on a promise to growers in the San Joaquin Valley to maximize water diversions to them, no matter the environmental and economic consequences to others,” GSSA said.

“This decision weakens all of the existing federal rules to protect Bay-Delta salmon runs. We’ve seen this movie before. In 2004 federal salmon biologists found that operating this massive water diversion project jeopardized various native species, including the salmon our jobs and communities depend on, that are supposed to be protected,” said John McManus, president of the Golden State Salmon Association. “The Bush Cheney administration stepped in and overruled and reversed those findings which led to catastrophic water diversions that killed untold millions of salmon and shut down our industry entirely in 2008 and 2009. It looks like this administration is trying to shut us down again – permanently.”

After Governor Gavin Newsom vetoed Senate Bill 1, legislation to help block Trump attacks on the Endangered Species Act and other federal laws in California, fish advocates are worried that he won’t do anything to protect the state’s salmon, other wildlife and salmon fishing jobs from this decision.

“Fishing and conservation advocates across the state are watching closely to see if Governor Newsom stands up for California in the face of yet another Trump administration assault on our environment and on salmon fishing jobs,” concluded McManus.

Noah Oppenheim, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (PCFFA), responded to the release of the new rules by stating, “The servile Interior Department has hijacked and subverted the scientific process. Fishing jobs are being sacrificed to benefit the corporate agriculture lobby, pure and simple. If the Newsom Administration fails to fight this flawed water plan, the next drought may very well wipe California salmon off the map.”

Even though the new water project operations also impact the Trinity River, the largest tributary of the Klamath River, this Biological Opinion does not disclose impacts or solutions for ailing Klamath-Trinity River salmon, according to the Save California Salmon organization. The group urged Newsom to file a lawsuit against the new Trump rules.

“Last month on California Native American Day the governor vetoed legislation (SB 1)that could have helped the state protect our salmon from this plan,” said Morning Star Gali, the Tribal Water Organizer from Save California Salmon. ”This veto came just months after he apologized for the state’s treatment of native people. We need more than lip service to California’s Tribal people’s and our declining salmon populations. Governor Newsom campaigned on fighting the Trump administration’s environmental rollbacks. We need him to walk his talk and fight for our salmon by filing a lawsuit against this bad plan for California’s environment,” she concluded.

House Natural Resources Chair Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and Chair of the Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Oceans, and Wildlife Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) released the statements strongly criticizing the proposed Biological Opinion for CVP operations, affirming that “even by the low standards of this administration, the corruption and political ham-handedness reflected in the proposed Biological Opinion for CVP operations is stunning.”

“The Trump administration’s ‘favor factory’ is at it again, weakening Endangered Species Act protections in order to maximize water deliveries to Secretary’s Bernhardt’s former clients,” said Representative Huffman. “Federal scientists warned that these pumping increases could doom California’s endangered salmon runs to extinction. Instead of listening to them and fixing the flawed pumping plan, the Trump administration replaced them with a new team that did scientific cartwheels to give Westlands what they wanted.”