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Trump orders quicker environmental review of California water projects

Trump orders quicker environmental review of California water projects
The intake channel at the C.W. "Bill" Jones Pumping Plant in Tracy. The federal plant sends water south to San Joaquin Valley farmers. (Katie Falkenberg / Los Angeles Times)

President Trump on Friday directed federal agencies to speed up their environmental review of major water projects in California and to develop plans to suspend or revise regulations that hamper water deliveries.

The directive will have little immediate practical effect. But it comes a bit more than two weeks before a midterm election in which some Central Valley Republicans are in close races to hold on to their congressional seats.

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Railing against environmental regulations that have hurt water deliveries to the valley is a perennial GOP battle cry — and one that could give a political boost to Republican incumbents. But the presidential memo also illustrates the legal constraints that prevent the federal government from single-handedly sending more water to San Joaquin Valley growers.

The memo sets 2019 deadlines for the U.S. Interior and Commerce departments to issue updated environmental rules that govern water exports from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta — the center of California’s sprawling water supply system.

The review of export limits under the Endangered Species Act started under the Obama administration, which signaled that the protections could grow more restrictive because populations of imperiled fish continue to plummet.

Federal biologists could retreat from that, loosening export limits when they issue the new rules next spring. But if they do, the action will inevitably be challenged in the courts, which blocked a similar effort by the George W. Bush administration.

California’s massive federal irrigation system, the Central Valley Project, must also adhere to state environmental regulations and water rights permits.

In tweets this summer, Trump echoed farmers’ protests that water flowing to the sea is wasted. In one tweet that was quickly condemned by state officials, Trump incorrectly claimed that water that had been “diverted into the Pacific Ocean” was inhibiting efforts to fight Northern California wildfires.

The Trump administration signaled that it was wading into California water politics in August.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke ordered the Bureau of Reclamation, which oversees the Central Valley Project, and other Interior agencies to develop an “initial plan of action” that would — among other things — maximize water deliveries, streamline federal environmental reviews of project operations and prepare “legislative and litigation measures” to increase deliveries.

The efforts have been led by Deputy Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, a former partner in one of the nation’s top-grossing lobbying law firms, Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck. There, he represented the politically influential Westlands Water District, which would be among the chief beneficiaries of improved deliveries to south-of-delta Central Valley Project customers.

In a briefing on Friday’s directive, Bernhardt said it could be the single most significant action a president has taken on Western water in his lifetime.

The memo, which Trump signed on a trip to Arizona, also sets a 2019 deadline for environmental reviews of the Klamath Project, which delivers water for irrigation in Oregon and Northern California.

Five Republican congressmen from the Central Valley — House Majority leader Kevin McCarthy, David Valadao, Devin Nunes, Jeff Denham and Tom McClintock — watched as Trump signed the memo after a fundraising lunch in Scottsdale.

Trump then handed the pen to Nunes, who for years has introduced legislation attacking the federal Endangered Species Act. Several of his proposals have passed the House only to die in the Senate.

“This will move things along at a record clip,” Trump told the group. “And you’ll have a lot of water. I hope you’ll enjoy the water you’ll have.”

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McCarthy, casting the signing as another promise kept by Trump, said the order could increase deliveries to the Central Valley by more than a million acre-feet. He gave no details as to how.

Three valley Republicans are facing serious challengers, although Denham, of Turlock, is the only incumbent polling behind his Democratic challenger. Josh Harder, a former venture capitalist, has a 5-point lead among likely voters in California’s 10th Congressional District, according to a recent poll conducted by UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies. The race is listed as a “Republican toss-up” by the nonpartisan political handicapper Cook Political Report.

As water exports from the delta increased in recent decades, populations of migrating salmon and delta smelt — a finger-sized fish found only in the delta — plummeted. That has triggered endangered species protections under state and federal law that periodically limit the intake of the government pumping plants that divert supplies to San Joaquin Valley fields and Southland cities.

State water quality standards also mandate that a certain level of fresh water flows through the delta to keep salt water from the San Francisco Bay away from the delta pumps.

Legal experts say that any attempts by the Trump administration to skirt state environmental regulations could run afoul of a 1978 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a case that pitted California against the Central Valley Project.

The high court found that, under the 1902 Reclamation Act, federal irrigation projects in the West must conform to state laws.

Kate Poole, an attorney with the environmental group the Natural Resources Defense Council, has waged numerous legal battles to uphold Endangered Species Act protections in the delta. She saw more politics than policy in the memo.

“We cannot comment on campaign stunts,” she said after reviewing Trump’s directive.

Times staff writer Maya Sweedler contributed to this report.

3:25 p.m.: This article was updated with details of the signing, Central Valley congressional races, and a comment from environmental attorney Kate Poole.

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