On the eve of President Trump’s visit to California this week, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced his intention to veto a bill that would have protected the state’s iconic migratory salmon and many other endangered species from the Trump administration’s environmental rollbacks.
The timing is unhappily fitting. Trump used his visit to trash the California air with his announcement that he was revoking the state’s power to set its own tough tailpipe emission standards. Now Newsom may help him drain California‘s rivers to further the president’s effort to divert more water to agricultural and urban uses.
At issue is Senate Bill 1, a reasonable bill that would have kept in place, as state standards, the federal regulations promulgated under the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Endangered Species Act as they existed the day before Trump took office.
Trump has made clear his intention to weaken those protections. He has expressed a special antagonism toward — and ignorance of — California water and its role in sustaining the state’s unique and fragile ecology. Remember, this is a president who claimed that the state’s drought was caused by state law, not by the fact that it stopped raining for seven years. During last year’s deadly wildfires, Trump said the flames spread because we had pumped all the water into the ocean and didn’t have any left for firefighters. What nonsense.
A year ago, his administration rewrote federal rules in order to pump more water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and divert it to farms. Reflecting his contempt for science and fact, his administration then replaced the federal biologists whose job was to study the plan for its effect on threatened salmon and other fish, and who had power to limit pumping to enforce environmental laws.
SB 1 would have helped California protect itself against the federal retreat from science and environmental protection.
Newsom generally stands up to Trump’s anti-environmentalism. For example, the governor said on Wednesday that he would fight the administration’s move to eliminate California’s authority to set more stringent auto emission standards than the federal government’s.
So it’s especially galling that Newsom is carrying Trump’s water by rejecting SB 1.
In his announcement, Newsom made the head-scratching assertion that the bill “limits the state’s ability to rely upon the best available science to protect our environment.”
What? The bill would have done the opposite. It would have protected against the science-denying federal rollbacks by incorporating Endangered Species Act requirements to rely on fish biologists’ assessments.
The upside-down-and-backwards claim that high standards lock out science echoes a talking point of state water agencies such as the Southern California Metropolitan Water District. According to this argument, the science that says fish need more water just may be outdated and could be succeeded at some point by new science that says fish may be fine with less water, as long as they get better protection from predators and better spawning habitat. Or something like that.
The same water agencies are participating in so-called voluntary settlement talks that they hope will give them relief from state requirements to leave more water for endangered fish in key rivers such as the San Joaquin and the Sacramento, and the delta into which those rivers flow. The agencies worried that SB 1 would get in the way, and they prevailed on Newsom to reject it.
Newsom has put a lot of stock into the voluntary settlement talks as a keystone of his still-developing water policy. He appears to believe that he can get the various water interests — agriculture, urban suppliers, environmentalists — to reach an accord that has eluded them for decades.
And perhaps they can, but any such accord will require some water givebacks to the environment and some faith that science can and should be used to apply laws that recognize that California water and California’s environment are public trusts.
By making clear that the state would keep its standards high, SB 1 would have provided crucial leverage to keep water agencies at the negotiating table with the understanding that they will ultimately have to take less instead of — as Trump would have it — more. Without that firm stance against the science-denying White House, Newsom may find that the migratory salmon, delta smelt and other endangered California species that are so essential a part of the California ecosystem are going extinct on his watch.