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California

Defying environmentalists, Newsom vetoes bill to block Trump’s Endangered Species Act rollback

Gavin Newsom
California Gov. Gavin Newsom, shown after his State of the State address in February, has irked some environmentalist allies with his veto of Senate Bill 1.
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed a bill on Friday that would have allowed California to preserve Obama-era endangered species protections and water-pumping restrictions for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta should they be dismantled by the Trump administration, a move scorned by environmental groups that have been among the governor’s most important political allies.

Newsom, who had announced his intent to veto Senate Bill 1 after it was approved by the Legislature this month, expressed little concern about a rift with environmentalists over the legislation, which he dismissed as a “solution in search of a problem.”

“I have spent 52 years of my life being an environmental leader and champion, and I’ll take a back seat to no one in terms of my advocacy,” Newsom told reporters just hours before sending the vetoed bill back to the Legislature.

Kassie Siegel, director of the Climate Law Institute at the Center for Biological Diversity, said that California’s environmental leaders still “hope for great things” from Newsom but that his decision to veto SB 1 was a consequential mistake.

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“Newsom capitulated to Trump’s cronies and corporate interests and threw endangered species and Californians under the bus,” she said.

Siegel noted that state Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra this week joined with 16 other states to file a lawsuit against the Trump administration over its weakening of the Endangered Species Act.

“That’s the kind of political courage we need for California,” Siegel said.

Newsom this week attended events in New York surrounding the U.N. Climate Action Summit, where he touted California’s environmental achievements and said he was “absolutely humiliated” by President Trump’s refusal to recognize established science on climate change.

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Kathryn Phillips, director of Sierra Club California, rejected the notion that there was a major rift with Newsom, but she didn’t spare her criticism over his veto.

She said she believes Newsom was swayed by arguments made by the bill’s opponents, including powerful public water agencies, that the legislation would reduce their water supply from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and derail negotiations over enhanced endangered species protections. The delta provides water for more than 25 million people and millions of acres of Central Valley farmland.

“What this has done is revealed some key challenges we’re going to face as we move forward over the next 3 ½ years with him,” Phillips said of the governor. “This is a pretty stubborn guy we’re dealing with, and when he digs his heels in, there’s no persuading him with facts.”

Audubon California Executive Director Sarah Rose also criticized Newsom’s veto, saying the state has “missed an important opportunity to protect the state’s residents, habitats and imperiled wildlife.”

In his veto message, Newsom said California has been a “leader in the fight for resource, environmental, and worker protections,” adding that since Trump has taken office, the state has aggressively fought any attempt by the president’s administration to roll back those protections.

Newsom has argued that the bill was unnecessary and that his administration has effectively challenged Trump’s policies in the courts and through administrative action.

“While I disagree about the efficacy and necessity of Senate Bill 1, I look forward to working with the Legislature in our shared fight against the weakening of California’s environmental and worker protections,” Newsom said in the veto message.

Annie Notthoff, senior Western advocacy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, called Newsom’s veto “head-scratching.”

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Newsom’s "veto of SB 1 is disappointing on many levels,” she said. “Citing California’s record of ‘deploying all the tools at the state’s disposal,’ Governor Newsom just refused to employ a new potentially powerful tool in SB 1. That’s mystifying.”

Written by Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins (D-San Diego), SB 1 would have allowed 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 Trump took office in January 2017.

In a tweet Friday evening, Atkins said she was disappointed by the veto and would continue to press to protect the environment and working Californians.

“The federal gov’t continues to roll back regulations while #climatechange impacts roll on,” she tweeted. “I will keep working with my colleagues and the Governor to push back wherever possible.”

The bill added fuel to the ongoing clash between water users — primarily Central Valley farms and Southern California cities — and environmentalists over efforts to protect delta smelt, Chinook salmon and steelhead trout in the delta by limiting the amount of water that can be siphoned away from their habitats.

The biggest hitch in negotiations over the bill 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 that provides much of the water consumed by farms and people in the Central Valley.

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, which Newsom strongly supports, are aimed at allowing greater flexibility in how to protect endangered species and divert water from the delta.

The influential Metropolitan Water District of Southern California also opposed the bill. Leaders of the agency, which provides water to tens of millions of Southern California residents, feared they might be forced to reduce its water supply from the delta that is sent south by a separate state water system.

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Water agencies also argued that the bill would have locked in outdated federal rules that regulate water pumping and species protections in the delta. As a result, they said, new scientific findings that offer prescriptions for better water and species management practices would be ignored.

Newsom agreed with those criticisms and vowed to veto the bill just hours after it passed the Legislature on Sept. 14.

Shortly after Newsom declared he would veto the bill, Western Growers President and CEO Tom Nassif praised the decision, saying that thousands of family farmers would benefit.

“Our farmers strive to be good stewards of the environment and our natural resources, and we support a balanced approach to water resiliency that relies on the best available science,” he said in a statement.

Since taking office, Trump has pushed to deliver more delta water to Central Valley farms, regardless of the effect on endangered species.

The Westlands Water District, a San Joaquin Valley irrigation district led by some of the state’s wealthiest growers, would be one of the biggest beneficiaries of Trump’s proposal to allow more water to be withdrawn from the delta.

Before joining the Trump administration, U.S. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt was a partner at a law and lobbying firm that represented Westlands, and he sued the Department of the Interior four times on the district’s behalf.

Newsom has been a frequent critic of Trump’s environmental policies.

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.

And 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.


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