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Column: Trump gives politically connected farmers more water, at expense of everyone else

President Trump displays his water memo Wednesday in Bakersfield.
President Trump displays his water memo Wednesday in Bakersfield. Behind him are, from center to right, GOP Rep. Devin Nunes, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and GOP Rep. Tom McClintock.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

Let’s give credit where credit is due: President Trump and Interior Secretary David Bernhardt put in a full day’s work Wednesday.

Of course, the work they were doing served only a small cadre of rich farmers, not you and me. Presumably it’s only a coincidence that some of those farm interests are former lobbying clients of Bernhardt’s, and that he and Trump gave them just what they’d been trying to get from the government for years.

The issue is water, a topic on which Trump has shown spectacular ignorance in the past and in which Bernhardt has wallowed up to his armpits.

These new rules sacrifice the Bay-Delta and its most endangered species for the financial interests of the President’s political backers and Secretary Bernhardt’s former clients.
Kate Poole, Natural Resources Defense Council

As my colleague Bettina Boxall reports, Trump signed a memo, during a campaign appearance Wednesday in Bakersfield, relaxing regulations under the Endangered Species Act that have limited the flow of water to irrigate big farms in the Central Valley.

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At the ceremony in one of the few remaining parts of California that vote red, Trump was accompanied by Bernhardt, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield), GOP Reps. Devin Nunes and Tom McClintock, and former GOP Rep. David Valadao.

Trump promised to send “a magnificent amount” of water to Central Valley farms. In a news release that might have made George Orwell bow down in admiration for its audacious twisting of the truth, the Interior Department asserted that Trump’s action “optimizes water delivery and increases species protection” in the Central Valley. In reality, the action throws water flows through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay Delta out of whack and does so by reducing species protection.

Let’s take a look at the context of Trump’s action.

It didn’t require supernatural powers of clairvoyance to guess the name of President Trump’s nominee to lead the Department of the Interior as successor to the cartoonishly unethical Ryan Zinke.
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First, it’s facing major legal pushback. Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra and the state Natural Resources Agency and Environmental Protection Agency filed suit Thursday in San Francisco federal court to block Trump from executing his order. The lawsuit says the order is based on “fatally defective” federal scientific work.

There may also be lawsuits from environmental groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council. The NRDC’s water director, Kate Poole, said Wednesday that “these new rules sacrifice the Bay-Delta and its most endangered species for the financial interests of the President’s political backers and Secretary Bernhardt’s former clients.” She’s right.

Second, it reflects an idee-fixe Trump has labored under since his presidential campaign — that California has plenty of water but lets it flow uselessly out to the sea instead of diverting it to rich farmers. This is a notion that was pumped into Trump’s head by people like Rep. McClintock and the Westlands Water District, one of Bernhardt’s former clients and the beneficiary of policies that have emerged from the Interior Department during his tenure.

During the height of the last drought in 2016, for example, Trump parroted their spiel. He denied that there was a drought at all and blamed “the environmentalists.” He said, “They’re taking the water and shoving it out to sea....The environmentalists don’t know why. They’re trying to protect a certain kind of three-inch fish.”

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That sounded familiar. At a congressional hearing in January 2010, McClintock blamed apportionments that had deprived growers of some access to water on “the environmental left’s pet project, the delta smelt.”

The delta smelt is close to extinction, and that’s alarming.
(Los Angeles Times)

He cited “the nihilistic vision of the environmental left: increasingly severe government-induced shortages … and a permanently declining quality of life for our children, who will be required to stretch and ration every drop of water and every watt of electricity in their bleak and dimly lit homes.”

The delta smelt, as I’ve reported, is merely a right-wing demon. The most important role of the little freshwater fish is as a bellwether for the overall health of the estuarine ecosystem, and it’s near-extinction is a red alert. The collapse of that ecosystem will be costly for all the state’s residents—farmers, fishermen, city dwellers and wildlife.

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The very idea that preserving the ecosystem elevates mere fish over farms is ignorantly narrow-minded. The bay-delta system serves not only the Westlands Water District, but also the salmon fishery along the coast and urban water users in Southern California. Balancing their interests is crucial, because that’s the only way to serve all their interests.

Trump seems to think that water deliveries can be increased for Big Agriculture without sacrifices by the other stakeholders, but he’s wrong. Water supply in California is a zero-sum game, and the sum is only going to get smaller with climate change.

That brings us to the specifics of Trump’s memo. Its goal of rolling back endangered species protections has had a bodyguard of lies and deception throughout this administration.

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Boxall reported last year that the administration had suppressed a scientific report, known as a “biological opinion,” warning that plans to deliver more water to Central Valley farms would harm endangered and threatened species including Sacramento River winter-run Chinook salmon, steelhead trout, sturgeon and killer whales. The administration never released the document and replaced the team that produced it.

As a lobbyist for Westlands and subsequently as a top Interior Department official, Bernhardt has had the knives out for the Endangered Species Act. While representing Westlands, he sued Interior over the law’s application.

In August 2018, while serving as the No. 2 official at Interior and almost exactly when his one-year recusal from matters affecting his ex-clients expired, he published an op-ed in the Washington Post calling for a rollback of the act — or rather, as he put it, “bringing our government’s implementation of the Endangered Species Act into the 21st century.” (Bernhardt’s spokesperson at the agency insisted that he had complied with all his ethics commitments.)

This claim that the administration is seeking only to “modernize” federal law and regulations is a common claim. It reappears in the memo Trump signed Wednesday. It should always be treated with suspicion. The Endangered Species Act has functioned perfectly well, when it’s enforced, in the nearly half-century since its enactment in 1973, except that modernizing it for today’s environment would properly mean expanding it, not undermining it.

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Water and the environment are inherently political issues, but government regulation in the past has been informed by serious science. Trump has replaced that with self-interested myth.


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