PD Editorial: Getting it right on water rights

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If credibility were measured like rainfall, the Trump administration would be in the midst of a prolonged drought — as evidenced most recently in its handling of plans to send more water to California’s Central Valley.

Last fall, President Donald Trump signed an executive order to expedite development of new rules guiding the water supply for two-thirds of California residents and the irrigation of millions of acres of farmland. The rapid timeline — and accompanying call “to minimize unnecessary regulatory burdens” — raised justifiable concerns about whether the new rules would protect species like the Chinook salmon critical to the state’s fishing industry.

But this month, just days before the public was expected to get its first look at the rules, administration officials announced a two-month delay so that a new team of experts can be brought in to “refine” and “improve” the plan. Paul Souza, regional director at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said the delay is “about taking the time we need to ensure we get this right.”

Getting it right is essential, particularly for North Coast fishing communities like Bodega Bay and Fort Bragg. This administration, however, has done little to earn confidence that it’s truly looking out for the fishing industry or the environment.

One reason for suspicion is the involvement of Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, who oversees two of the agencies analyzing the water plan. Prior to replacing the scandal-ridden Ryan Zinke at the Interior Department, he served as a lawyer for the Westlands Water District and pushed repeatedly to weaken Endangered Species Act protections for Chinook salmon and other fish.

In fact, Bernhardt continued to push for those weaker protections after he joined Interior in 2017, despite rules against lobbying on behalf of former clients. His actions prompted calls for an ethics investigation by the department’s inspector general.

In that light, there’s ample reason to question why the administration has decided to ease up on its rush to develop new rules. Did the existing team of biologists and other experts not present the plan that Bernhardt and other advocates of weakened protections were looking for? Why bring in an entirely new team to examine the work that’s been done? If it’s truly about “getting it right,” why not be more transparent about the process and involve the public more?

It’s been clear from the start that biologists would need more time than Trump wanted to give them to analyze the effects of increased water flow on a half-dozen endangered species as well as the agriculture and fishing industries. The ramifications of releasing more water is far-reaching, affecting people from Silicon Valley to San Diego and species ranging from the tiny delta smelt to salmon-dependent killer whales.

In that respect, a delay could be favorable to a science-based decision — but only if Bernhardt and the rest of the administration are making a good-faith effort. As this process moves forward, they need to demonstrate they’re actually looking for answers that serve the needs of California’s drinking water supplies and balance the interests of the agriculture and fishing industries.

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