Less than 24 hours after President Donald Trump signed law changes in Bakersfield to divert more water for farmers and ranchers in the Central Valley, the state of California responded by suing the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to stop it.
Becerra and Newsom file suit
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra filed the lawsuit in a San Francisco Federal Court in conjunction with Governor Gavin Newsom. Instead of citing the need for water in possible future droughts, which the Trump Administration largely thought would be the reason evidenced by President Trump’s remarks on Wednesday, the suit is focusing on how greater water usage is threatening many species with extinction. Species named on Thursday included chinook salmon, steelhead trout, and delta smelt.
The state nearly sued over water usage and endangered species concerns in November following regulation changes made in October by Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, but nothing was done as California hoped to compromise with the federal government. Trumps changes on Wednesday were the tipping point for Newsom and Becerra.
“California won’t silently spectate as the Trump Administration adopts scientifically-challenged biological opinions that push species to extinction and harm our natural resources and waterways,” said California AG Becerra on Thursday during a conference. “Our goal continues to be to realize enforceable voluntary agreements that provide the best immediate protection for species, reliable and safe drinking water, and dependable water sources for our farmers for economic prosperity.”
Change in the Central Valley
While there has been a significant declination of some fish in California due to years of differing water control measures, low quality and low flows of water have plagued the Central Valley for decades. Trump’s announcement of Wednesday highlighted the change.
“A major obstacle to providing water for the region’s farmers has now been totally eliminated by the federal government,” President Trump announced on Wednesday. “For too long water authorities have flushed millions of gallons into the Pacific. I ordered the administration to update outdated opinions which determined water allocation in this state.”
Interior Secretary Bernhardt responded to California’s announcement on Thursday night with a warning on what a lawsuit could mean for both California and the federal government.
“The governor and attorney general just launched a ship into a sea of unpredictable administrative and legal challenges regarding the most complex water operations in the country, something they have not chartered before,” said Secretary Bernhardt in a statement. “Litigation can lead to unpredictable twists and turns that can create significant challenges for the people of California who depend on the sound operation of these two important water projects.”
The upcoming court battle could have more far reaching consequences as well.
“What nobody is saying, what nobody wants to say, is that both sides have good points,” explained water control expert Wayne Giles to the California Globe. “We need the fish because they’re endangered and because other species help the fishing industry which feeds slightly into the tourism industry. And we need more water for farmers because of the conditions they’re in and because it plays big into agriculture.”
“A fight over this helps neither. A compromise of different flows and usage levels depending on drought, breeding season, really, which times both sides need more or less water. But it’s too combative. California made promises to protect fish species and Trump made promises for more water to farmers. Neither wants to back down and neither wants to go to the table to figure out a water usage schedule to help both environmentalists and farmers.”
“This is only making them drift farther apart. And right now, due to the sensitivity of both issues, it’s exactly what we don’t need right now.”
The lawsuit is expected to be heard in the near future, with both the federal and state governments expected to fight passionately in the months leading up to the 2020 election.