As climate-driven drought and wildfires rage in California, the Biden administration is struggling to navigate the hard politics that come with deciding who gets access to the state’s precious — and dwindling — water supplies.
Responding to the hot and parched conditions that have contributed to the wildfires and worsened the water shortages this summer has strained both federal and state capacity. Now the Biden administration is delaying action on the fundamental question at the heart of California's long-running water wars: How much water should be reserved for species protections, at the expense of the state's powerful agricultural industry?
An incendiary political question at any time, changes to the system put in place under former President Donald Trump would be sure to set off a political storm during a punishing drought that has cut some farms' water deliveries to zero.
“None of the options for the federal government in this drought would be anything but controversial,” said Jeffrey Mount, a senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California, a nonprofit think tank that analyzes California policies. “This is a lose-lose; whatever you do, it's going to be highly controversial with someone.”
At the heart of the fight is the Trump administration's rewrite of endangered species rules, which limit the amount of water that can be pumped from the state's water hub in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to Central Valley farms. Trump used California's water wars as a political cudgel, blaming environmental protections for agriculture's water woes during one of his campaign-style rallies in the conservative Central Valley, and tapping the lobbyist for the state's most powerful agricultural district, David Bernhardt, to be his Interior secretary.
Green groups are desperate to overturn the Trump-era rules and want the Interior Department to craft new, far more protective ones. They say the administration's decision to leave the contentious Trump-era rules in place for months does not jibe with Biden's efforts to cast himself as an environmental champion, and could lead to the extinction of endangered salmon. But the powerful Central Valley agricultural interests that benefited from those Trump policies are praising Biden's “deliberate” approach.
Biden administration officials say they have simply had their hands full responding to the emergencies spawned by the historic drought. But taking on California's water wars also poses a political challenge because neither Gov. Gavin Newsom nor the state's senior Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein are in any hurry to overturn the Trump-era policies.
The drought looms largest in the agriculture-rich Central Valley, home to the state's most restive, Republican-leaning voters, where Newsom has treaded carefully and has no incentive to anger farmers ahead of next month's recall election. Although he sued the Trump administration over its contentious water rules, he’s also championing an alternative proposed by water districts to meet cutbacks proposed by state regulators. And he’s accepted $250,000 in donations from agricultural interests to defend himself against the recall.
“If I was advising Gov. Newsom on water policy, I'd put it on the list of land mines to not step on. Certainly prior to the recall, and probably prior to the election next year,” said Darry Sragow, a longtime California Democratic strategist.
Case in point: The governor has so far refused to order mandatory water conservation by urban districts as former Gov. Jerry Brown did in 2015, even as the state faces its third-driest year on record, tying 2014 for low precipitation.
Meanwhile, Feinstein has long been sympathetic to the state’s agricultural sector when it comes to water. In 2016, she pushed contentious changes through Congress allowing fishery agencies to relax Endangered Species Act protections in the Central Valley over objections from her longtime Democratic colleague, staunch environmentalist and former Sen. Barbara Boxer.
Feinstein, who urged the state to work with the Trump administration on its California water policies, indicated that she supported the Biden administration's go-slow approach.
“The Biden administration is rightly focusing on the drought, which is the worst in more than 40 years and is causing havoc with water managers’ plans due to climate change,” she said in a statement. “The administration needs to devote all of its attention to ensuring there’s sufficient drinking water for rural communities, avoiding the most severe effects on endangered fish and preventing crushing hardships for farmers.”
She argued there is no need to rush to revise the endangered species protections since they primarily govern actions during the winter rainy season, dismaying environmentalists who saw the Trump administration’s California water policies as a giveaway to politically powerful water users.
The endangered species protections at the center of the fight are meant to protect the chinook salmon, steelhead, and the Delta smelt, a small, endangered fish that resides in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay-Delta and is imperiled by the massive pumps that send water to central and southern California farms and cities.
But, even as the science painted an increasingly dire picture for the species, the Trump administration opted to loosen protections rather than strengthen them. Without swift changes to the Trump administration policies, both species could disappear on Biden’s watch, green groups say.
Although Biden included the endangered species rules in a day-one list of Trump actions his administration would review, his Interior and Commerce departments issued a May memo indicating they plan to leave them in place through at least the end of November. The administration has since said in court that it plans to begin reconsidering the rules by the beginning of October.
Crafting new endangered species rules is a years-long process; environmentalists say it must begin immediately if the fish are to have any chance at survival.
But Biden administration officials say that staff experts are consumed with responding to the immediate crisis of the drought, and that, since they have such little water to work with this year, reversing the Trump policies immediately still wouldn't make much difference to how they are managing the situation on the ground.
That measured approach has reassured major agricultural interests that benefited from the Trump-era policies.
“I believe that the Biden administration is taking a slow, deliberate approach to water issues in California,” said Tom Birmingham, general manager of Westlands Water District, Bernhardt's former lobbying client. “I know that water issues in California are often controversial and there are hyperbolic statements that are often made about California water issues, but thus far I've been impressed by the deliberate approach taken by the new administration.”
The Biden administration’s Bureau of Reclamation has taken some steps to stave off the effects of the drought on fish and other species, like reducing water flows for power generation at Shasta Dam to preserve cold water for later in the season when fish need it to keep their eggs cool.
However, environmental groups say the administration should have gone further in cutting water deliveries to agricultural customers, pointing to the deaths of adult salmon caused by rising water temperatures in May and June. And Reclamation's plan to manage the Sacramento River still predicts more than four-fifths of this year's eggs will die due to high water temperatures.
“It seems like the Bureau of Reclamation is operating exactly the same as if Donald Trump was still the president and all those terrible appointees were still in place,” said Bob Wright, a lawyer representing environmental groups in water litigation. “As far as the Bureau of Reclamation and what they're doing with water, there's been no change.”
But Jeff Kightlinger, the immediate past general manager of Metropolitan Water District, the nation's largest drinking water supplier, said the administration was being “cautious” as it sought to strike a balance.
“I think certainly some environmental groups want to pull them more left, and I think they're being pretty centrist,” he said.
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