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California

Newsom plans to veto bill that would have blocked Trump’s rollback of endangered species protections

Sacramento River
A provision in Senate Bill 1 would have imposed pumping restrictions in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, raising concerns from water agencies across the state. Above, the Sacramento River near Courtland, Calif.
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

Gov. Gavin Newsom plans to veto a bill passed by California lawmakers that would have allowed the state to keep strict Obama-era endangered species protections and water pumping restrictions for the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

Newsom’s intentions, confirmed by his spokesman on Saturday, comes less than 24 hours after state lawmakers passed the sweeping legislation.

The overall intent of the bill was to shield California from the Trump administration’s rollbacks of environmental laws and workplace protections, but Newsom said the legislation fell short of that promise.

“I fully support the principles behind Senate Bill 1: to defeat efforts by the President and Congress to undermine vital federal protections that protect clean air, clean water and endangered species,” Newsom said in a statement released Saturday.

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“Senate Bill 1 does not, however, provide the state with any new authority to push back against the Trump Administration’s environmental policies and it limits the state’s ability to rely upon the best available science to protect our environment,” the statement said.

SB 1 would allow state agencies to adopt protections under the federal Endangered Species Act, Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Fair Labor Standards Act and other major environmental and labor laws that were in place before President Trump took office in January 2017.

Many of the labor and environmental provisions were not controversial. But debate over the legislation quickly centered on one of California’s oldest and most bitter divides — the fight over water in the delta, which provides water for more than 25 million people and millions of acres of Central Valley farmland.

Numerous water agencies, including the influential Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, feared the endangered species provisions and delta pumping restrictions would limit their water supply at key times of the year.

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The Newsom administration shared some of those concerns, as did U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and four Central Valley Democrats in Congress who submitted a letter last week requesting the bill be amended.

Despite those objections, the Democrat-controlled Legislature passed the bill early Saturday morning in the final hours of its annual legislative session.

State Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins (D-San Diego), who authored the bill, on Saturday said she was “strongly disappointed” with Newsom’s vow to veto the bill.

“Not only must we work to push back against the rollbacks that have already been made, we must start preparing now to push back against the next Trump assaults we know will be coming,” Atkins said in a statement.

Atkins said she intends to keep working with Newsom to safeguard California against “dangerous rollbacks” in environmental policy by the president.

Sending the bill to Newsom’s desk, and Newsom’s quick promise to veto the legislation, marks one of the first times that the governor and Atkins have clashed over major state policy.

The two have been strong political allies for years, with Atkins being the only Democratic legislative leader to endorse Newsom’s successful bid for governor in 2018. The divide could have implications for their future relationship, potentially complicating the governor’s legislative agenda.

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Since taking office in January, Newsom has been a frequent critic of Trump’s environmental policies.

In August, California and a coalition of 21 other states sued to block the Trump administration’s attempt to gut restrictions on coal-burning power plants, limits that were central to President Obama’s climate change policy. In July, California circumvented the Trump administration’s efforts to relax tailpipe pollution regulations by reaching a deal with four major automakers to gradually increase fuel-efficiency standards.

Environmental groups, which were a key part of the liberal coalition that helped elect Newsom, saw SB 1 as one of their top priorities for this year’s legislative session. The bill had strong support from Sierra Club California, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Audubon California and other groups. It sailed through the state Senate in May on a 28-10 vote, and went through several changes, based on meetings with various parties.

Kathryn Phillips, director of Sierra Club California, had been optimistic that Newsom would sign the bill, noting that he was elected on an “environmental platform.”

“I think he’s making a mistake. I think he’s been painted into a corner by some people that don’t have his or California’s best interests at heart and have been heavily invested in getting rid of the Endangered Species Act,” Phillips said. “He’s making it easier for Trump to continue to have a negative impact on California’s environment.”

The Butte County Farm Bureau, however, said the bill would “dismantle” the ability to produce food in California. Mike Wade of the California Farm Water Coalition said the consequences would be dire if Newsom did not veto the bill.

“Last night, California’s Legislature said “no” to future-oriented water policy including new environmental protections and “yes” to an outdated regulatory system and business as usual,” Wade said in a statement on Saturday.

Both Republicans and Democratic lawmakers, primarily from the Central Valley, spoke out against the bill.

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Sen. Jim Nielsen (R-Gerber) said the law would rekindle California’s water wars. Republican Assemblyman Devon Mathis of Visalia said it was a “knee-jerk reaction” by a state Legislature dominated by the Democratic Party against the Republican president. He said it would devastate agriculture in the Central Valley by cutting its water supply, an assertion that supporters of the bill refute.

“What this bill does is turn my area of the state literally into a dust bowl,” Mathis said during the Assembly debate on the bill Friday evening. “I have some of the highest poverty rates, I have one of the largest Latino immigrant areas. And these people depend on agricultural work, which means they depend on water.”

The key legislative fight involved efforts to protect delta smelt, Chinook salmon and steelhead trout by limiting the amount of water that can be siphoned away. Water users, including Central Valley farms and Southern California cities, have clashed with environmentalists over that issue for decades.

In the last several weeks, water interests have ramped up a campaign to derail the legislation or have it significantly amended.

Jennifer Pierre, general manager of the State Water Contractors association, said recently that the proposed bill would have locked in outdated federal rules that regulate water pumping and species protections in the delta. As a result, new scientific findings that offer prescriptions for better water and species management practices would be ignored, she said.

The bill’s biggest hitch was a provision that would impose the state’s endangered species protections and pumping restrictions on the Central Valley Project, the water system run by the federal Bureau of Reclamation. The Central Valley Project provides much of the water consumed by farms and people in the Central Valley heart of California.

Water districts that receive water from the Central Valley Project threatened to walk away from voluntary agreements being negotiated between them and state regulatory agencies. The pacts were aimed at allowing greater flexibility in how to protect endangered species and divert water from the delta. Newsom supported the voluntary agreements and did not want to see them derailed, administration officials said, which is why he had urged Atkins to amend the bill.

Jeffrey Kightlinger, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, said those agreements would benefit both water users and the ecosystem. Such gains would have been lost if Newsom had signed the bill.

“All along we said the bill was, frankly, a mistake. It will lead to nonstop litigation and do nothing for the environment,” Kightlinger. “SB 1 was good politics but bad policy.”

Phillips called those arguments by water agencies disingenuous. The water agencies and Central Valley farmers want the Trump administration’s weakened endangered species protections in place so they can pump more water from the delta, she said.

Since Trump has taken office, there have been questions whether water users would agree to settlements proposed during the administration of Gov. Jerry Brown, or seek better deals now that Trump administration has pushed rollbacks.

In August, the White House took action to weaken the 45-year-old Endangered Species Act, including removing protections for species recently added to the threatened list. This week, it announced it would weaken Obama-era rules on protecting wetlands.

The Times last month also reported that federal officials suppressed a lengthy environmental report detailing how a number of California species would be jeopardized by Trump’s plans to deliver more delta water to Central Valley farms.

The Metropolitan Water District has defended the federal government’s actions, saying that little has changed, a claim environmental groups have disputed as propaganda.

Times staff writer Liam Dillon contributed to this report.


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