Trump administration surrenders to California, backs off on Delta water fight

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The Trump administration has retreated on a plan to push more water through the Delta this fall after protests from California officials on the harmful impacts on endangered Chinook salmon and other fish.

State officials had been worried that the proposed move, by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, also would have meant less water for Southern California cities that rely on supplies pouring out of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

In a letter Tuesday to the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, Reclamation’s regional director Ernest Conant defended the plan to deliver more water to the irrigation districts that belong to the federal government’s Central Valley Project, saying it was “sound, science-based and lawful.” But he said Reclamation is backing off because it “values its relationships” with Fish and Wildlife and other California agencies.

President Donald Trump has been trying to increase water deliveries to Valley farmers in particular since taking office, and the decision to back off on the Delta issue marks a rare bit of peacemaking between the Trump administration and California over a wide range of issues, including the environment. Trump has been feuding with Gov. Gavin Newsom over air pollution and greenhouse gas regulations, to the point that he’s threatened to withhold federal highway funding from California.

“I for one am really glad to see this lowering of the temperature, though it may not be outright detente,” said Jeffrey Mount, a water policy expert at the Public Policy Institute of California. “It really wasn’t in their best interest to go to war with the state on this and they had some vulnerabilities . … Sometimes, strategic retreat is a good thing.”

The Delta is the heart of California’s north-to-south delivery system, and pumping more water south leaves less water in the estuary. Trump’s plan would have increased the salinity in the Delta and hurt fish species, according to state officials. And, because the state could have been obliged to follow the California Endangered Species Act to protect fish populations, the State Water Project might have been forced to reduce its pumping to compensate for the feds’ move, state officials said. That would have meant reduced deliveries to State Water Project districts, most of which are in urban Southern California.

“We appreciate the bureau’s decision not to pursue the (salinity) change in September and October. As we continue to work with federal agencies in several areas of water management, state agencies will work to ensure that our interests and environmental values are protected in operations of water infrastructure here in California,” said Lisa Lien-Mager, a spokeswoman for the state Natural Resources Agency.

This week’s decision only affects water pumping this fall. A larger fight over Delta water flows still looms between California and the Trump administration as the federal government finalizes sweeping plans to ease environmental restrictions and pump more south over the long haul.

Newsom’s administration has signaled it intends to fight that proposal.

While Newsom has vowed to defend the environment against Trump’s attempted rollbacks, he also angered environmentalists by vetoing SB 1, a bill designed to thwart all Trump initiatives on pollution-related issues. He said he was worried that signing SB 1 would have unraveled a series of tentative agreements on water-sharing along California’s major rivers that are designed to prop up fish populations.

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