PD Editorial: Base water policy on science, not politics

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President Donald Trump’s contempt for all things environmental isn’t any secret.

As the world copes with the threat of climate change, he wants to burn more coal and expand offshore oil drilling. He’s working to roll back clean air and fuel-efficiency standards for automobiles. He has filled top administration posts with like-minded people. And when science gets in the way, well, then it’s time to get rid of the scientists.

The latest example is right here in California.

Trump started promising more water to Central Valley growers before he was elected. During a campaign stop in Fresno three years ago, he dismissed the drought, then in its fifth year, as a hoax and snorted at legal protections for endangered fish in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

After taking office, Trump set out to open the taps and deliver more water to growers who kept planting thirsty nut trees through two long droughts between 2006 and 2017 and demanding more irrigation water.

“You’ll have lots of water,” Trump promised a group of Central Valley congressmen last year. “I hope you’ll enjoy the water you have.”

Trump set a July 1 deadline for federal scientists to complete a new biological opinion — a prerequisite to any increase in water diversions from the delta into the canals serving Central Valley farm country

As we noted three weeks ago, administration officials quashed the opinion days before it was to be released to the public and assigned a new team of scientists to the project “to ensure we get this right.”

The administration’s track record on environmental issues — coupled with the president’s promise and his choice of a former Wetlands Water District lobbyist to serve as interior secretary — left ample reason for skepticism. A leaked copy of the 1,123-page report, obtained by the Los Angeles Times, confirms our worst suspicions.

Biologists from the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concluded that increasing water diversions would jeopardize the survival of winter- and spring-run Chinook salmon and Central Valley steelhead. The winter-run salmon are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act; the spring-run salmon and steelhead are classified as threatened.

In addition, the federal scientists determined that southern resident killer whales, which feed on salmon, would be harmed. The whales also are a threatened species.

“Winter-run Chinook salmon are particularly important among California’s salmon runs because they exhibit a life-history strategy found nowhere else in the world,” the scientists said in their report. They also noted that California’s winter-run Chinook salmon “is considered one of just nine species that are most at risk of extinction in the near future.”

Pacific Coast salmon fisheries are finally starting to recover from the drought, with the state of California reporting that commercial catches have surpassed preseason forecasts by about 50%. Harvests have been particularly strong in Morro Bay, Monterey and San Francisco, but weaker along the North Coast and in the Pacific Northwest. That’s reason for hope in fishing communities that have been receiving federal disaster aid.

Their hopes will drain away with delta water if the Trump administration keeps choosing politics over science.

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