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Climate & Environment

Trump team weakens endangered species protections for California salmon and delta smelt

A delta smelt fish
Delta smelt, a native fish found only in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, is nearing extinction.
(University of California )

In a move that would boost water deliveries to San Joaquin Valley agriculture and Southern California cities, federal fishery agencies are weakening decade-old endangered species protections for some of the state’s most imperiled native fish populations.

The rollback — coming a year after President Trump targeted the regulations in a memo — rewards Central Valley agribusiness interests that are some of the president’s strongest California supporters. To critics, it highlights the extent to which the Trump administration has injected politics into federal oversight of the nation’s leading environmental laws.

The actions also put Gov. Gavin Newsom, a leader of the Trump resistance on many environmental matters, in a politically fraught position — since California’s biggest and most powerful water agencies want the state to go along with the Trump moves.

The fish protections partially govern operations of the giant federal and state pumping plants in the Northern California delta that help supply more than half the state’s population with drinking water and fill irrigation canals stretching across millions of acres of cropland.

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The massive water exports have upended the delta’s natural hydrologic rhythms and helped push native fish, such as the delta smelt and winter-run Chinook salmon, to the brink of extinction.

The tension between water supply and environmental protection in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta east of San Francisco has fueled more than two decades of legal and political conflict, with no end in sight.

Environmentalists, who successfully challenged similar rollbacks under President George W. Bush, are expected to go to court again to try to block the Trump administration rules, which would likely take effect in January.

“Given the level of political interference and the junk science that has been used ... it would be very unsurprising if these were not challenged and eventually overturned in court,” said Doug Obegi, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, which led the legal fight against the Bush-era rules.

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Two fishery agencies, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service, were in the process of updating endangered species protections adopted in 2008 and 2009 when Trump’s 2018 memo directed them to develop plans to revise or rescind regulations that impeded western water deliveries.

Then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke also ordered agencies to devise ways to maximize water deliveries from the federal Central Valley Project, which supplies delta water to valley growers, including the sprawling Westlands Water District. Ryan’s successor at Interior, David Bernhardt, is a former lobbyist-lawyer for Westlands who personally argued an appeals case challenging salmon protections.

Despite pressure from Washington, scientists with the marine fisheries service in July submitted a 1,123-page report, called a biological opinion, that found the proposed pumping increases would likely jeopardize the continued existence of four species — endangered winter-run Chinook salmon, threatened spring-run Chinook and threatened Central Valley steelhead, as well as endangered Southern Resident killer whales that eat salmon.

The so-called “jeopardy finding” would have made it difficult to significantly ramp up deliveries from the delta. Two days after the opinion was submitted, Paul Souza, the regional U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service official who is coordinating the salmon and delta smelt reviews, pulled the document and assembled a new team to rework it.

The salmon opinion signed Monday dropped the jeopardy findings. A separate smelt opinion prepared by the fish and wildlife service also concluded that the proposed changes in delta operations would not jeopardize the continued existence of the smelt, which have all but disappeared from the delta, their only home.

Souza said the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which runs the Central Valley Project, agreed to a number of changes in reservoir and pumping management that cleared the way for the no-jeopardy findings.

“There’s been a lot of change, a lot of negotiation since June that allowed us to address the concerns that were raised originally,” he said Monday.

Water users welcomed the change.

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“Today’s action builds on President Trump’s campaign commitment to help solve the state’s water supply shortages,” said Dan Keppen, executive director of the Family Farm Alliance.

Jeffrey Kightlinger, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, said the revisions were overdue.

“Undoubtedly there are times when fish need greater protections, and pumping must be reduced. … There are also times when public water agencies can safely divert supplies when the populations are out of harm’s way,” he said. “While this creates some uncertainty about our future supplies, it is without question a better approach.”

Under the new rules, Souza said delta pumping restrictions would be based on real-time monitoring of where smelt and migrating salmon are swimming in the delta, rather than the seasonal prescriptions contained in the current regulations.

Reclamation teams in boats would monitor smelt location several times a week and pumping would be curbed if the tiny fish are at risk, he said. Similarly, an increase in the number of salmon caught at the pumps would trigger pumping limits.

Additionally, Souza said the reclamation bureau has agreed to invest in a conservation hatchery for delta smelt; will monitor turbidity and other delta conditions that smelt favor; and will increase the average May 1 levels of Lake Shasta, the Central Valley Project’s biggest reservoir, to preserve cold water releases necessary to maintain salmon-friendly temperatures in the Sacramento River.

As for how the revisions would affect water deliveries, Souza said he could not put a number on it. The goal “was for us to find flexibility in providing water supply when it did not conflict with fishery conservation. We struck that balance.”

Flexibility, real-time monitoring of the imperiled fish and dropping the existing seasonal pumping limits are all changes sought by Westlands and the Metropolitan Water District. They and other water users have bitterly complained about cuts to their water deliveries resulting from existing endangered species protections.

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The same interests successfully lobbied Newsom to veto a bill that would have incorporated those protections in state regulations.

Although Souza argued that the revisions provide safeguards equal or better than existing requirements, the salmon opinion acknowledges that the new operating rules will adversely affect listed species and their habitat, particularly in severe drought years, when low flows and warm water are likely to kill large numbers of winter-run salmon eggs.

“This decision weakens all of the existing federal rules to protect Bay-Delta salmon runs. We’ve seen this movie before,” said John McManus, president of the Golden State Salmon Association. “It looks like this administration is trying to shut us down again — permanently.”

The rollback increases pressure on the Newsom administration to adopt stronger delta protections under the state endangered species act.

“If the Newsom administration fails to fight this flawed water plan, the next drought may very well wipe California salmon off the map,” said Noah Oppenheim, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Assns.

But if the governor sides with conservation groups, he could alienate urban and farm districts that are some of the most influential players in the contentious world of California water.

Lisa Lien-Mager, deputy secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency, said state officials were reviewing the lengthy federal documents, which were released Tuesday morning.

“California is, and will continue to be, a leader in the fight for clean air, clean water and endangered species,” she said. “We will evaluate the federal government’s proposal, but will continue to push back if it does not reflect our values.”


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