Capitol Journal: California moves to block Trump from rolling back its environmental protections

A bill carried by state Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) decrees that the state will step in and adopt any federal environmental protection that President Trump tries to eviscerate.
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

There’s a new twist in the California-Trump brawl in the state Legislature. It’s aimed at overriding the president’s power to weaken environmental protections.

Put simply, any federal protections President Trump tried to gut would immediately become state regulations in their original, strong form.

For example: If Trump attempted to weaken endangered species protections for imperiled salmon in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta so he could pump more water to Central Valley farms, the state would automatically adopt those federal fish safeguards as its own.

In fact, that’s a very real potential scenario.


Trump’s recently installed Interior secretary, David Bernhardt, was a former lobbyist for the San Joaquin Valley’s Westlands Water District, the nation’s largest irrigation district. Bernhardt has long advocated weakening Endangered Species Act protections so valley farmers could get more delta water and fish get less.

That would be blocked under the legislation, SB 1, carried by the powerful Senate president pro tem, Toni Atkins (D-San Diego). The bill is lengthy and complex, but basically it decrees that the state will step in and adopt any federal environmental protection that Trump or Bernhardt try to eviscerate.

“SB 1 ensures clean air, clean water, endangered species and worker safety standards that have been in place for as long as 50 years are not rolled back as a result of the anti-environment actions of the president and Congress,” Atkins says in a statement accompanying her legislation.

“In the past two years, the new administration and Congress have adopted action after action to weaken, roll back and outright repeal longstanding and well-accepted standards to protect workers, public health and the environment. SB 1 simply ensures those standards stay in place to protect everyday Californians, even if the federal government rolls them back.”

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Trump has been weakening regulations on his own — or threatening to — right and left. So Atkins wants to push her bill through the Legislature before it adjourns for the year in mid-September. Given her clout, there’s a good chance she’ll succeed.

So far, without much attention, the bill has survived four Senate committees, the Senate floor and three Assembly panels, drawing only a smattering of “no” votes from Republicans. It cleared two Assembly committees this week and is now in the Appropriations Committee.

Moderate Democrats could be a problem once the bill reaches the Assembly floor. They tend to vote with business and agriculture interests who oppose the bill. But the measure only requires a simple majority vote, and Democrats have many to spare.

Gov. Gavin Newsom hasn’t said anything publicly about the bill. But it seems ready-made for him. It’s pro-environment and anti-Trump.

Atkins is aware that many voters, including Democrats, are tired and bored of Trump-trashing.

“I don’t want to get into that debate” about Trump, Atkins told me. “I want to address issues and protect programs — clean water, clean air, endangered species. All of those hyperbolic and crazy [anti-Trump] words, I have not uttered. There are people who absolutely relish taking on Trump by name, but that is just not my thing….

“I kind of agree with [former Gov.] Jerry Brown. I don’t want to poke a bear in the eye with a stick. Any number of my colleagues would love to take him on directly. Not me.”

It’s easier to believe that Atkins is one politician who really does care mostly about the policy of this subject — not the politics — when you recall that she spent her early years in a small southern Virginia house with no indoor plumbing and a rain barrel to collect water. The bathroom was an outhouse.

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Similarly, Atkins’ bill has lots of opponents among special interests, but not because any of them are trying to defend Trump.

The California Chamber of Commerce has placed the bill on its influential “job killer” list of especially bad legislation. Chamber President Allan Zaremberg objects to the state automatically adopting the feds’ discarded rules without closely analyzing them in public hearings.

“We should have a fair discussion of what’s good or bad and look at all these issues on a case-by-case basis,” Zaremberg says. “You don’t know what you don’t know.”

Dan Dunmoyer, president of the California Building Industry Assn., says he foresees added red-tape hassle for homebuilders if the state gets more involved in construction projects.

“It’s the country of California versus the country of Trump, and we’re the ones being squished in the middle,” Dunmoyer says.

But more than anything, this legislative fight is another battle in the never-ceasing California water war. Water interests are eager for Trump to loosen regulations, especially on endangered species. And they vigorously oppose Atkins’ bill because it would effectively nullify the president’s actions.

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They don’t often say that publicly. A letter to the Legislature signed by two dozen water district managers warned that SB 1 “threatens supply reliability for millions of Californians” and “will create chaos in California water.”

“Cut to the chase,” Atkins says. “This is an opportunity for special interests to reopen issues. They’d like to see some of these [environmental] standards undone.…

“It gets back to ‘Chinatown,’ the movie.”

Well, not quite. There’s no Noah Cross (John Huston) dumping water in the ocean or poisoning wells, let alone committing murder.

But “Chinatown” — inspired by Los Angeles’ shameful draining of the Owens Valley — is always a fitting analogy whenever there are water grabbers loose.

And there always are in California. Trump’s the latest.

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