The COVID-19 pandemic, we have been told, is transforming how we live, but one aspect of life in California appears immune to change: the state’s perennial war over water.
President Donald Trump and California Gov. Gavin Newsom may have set aside their incessant squabbling over most issues to cooperate on the pandemic, but they are poised for showdown over who controls the state’s vital water supply.
Last year, Trump’s Bureau of Reclamation, reflecting his 2016 campaign promises to San Joaquin Valley farmers, issued new operating criteria for the federal Central Valley Project that would send more water to agricultural irrigators and less to bolster habitat for fish and other wildlife in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
The bureau’s 871-page “biological assessment” was aimed, it said, to “maximize water supply and delivery” while maintaining adequate protections for fish.
The state Department of Water Resources quickly disagreed by issuing its own draft of operational guidelines for the State Water Project. DWR Director Karla A. Nemeth said the guidelines would implement “a more sophisticated and nimble way to manage the State Water Project to improve our ability to protect species and operate more flexibly.”
More recently, that position was finalized in an “incidental taking permit” issued by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, aimed at improving wildlife survival as water is diverted from the Delta.
Pumps Pull Water From the Delta Near Tracy and Into Canals That Deliver It to San Joaquin Valley Farmers
In effect, these bureaucratic actions comprise an historic split between federal and state water officials, who for decades have cooperatively managed their separate but intermingled water systems.
Both capture water via dams and reservoirs on major streams and release it into the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, which merge into the Delta. Pumps pull water from the Delta near Tracy and into canals that deliver it to San Joaquin Valley farmers and Southern California cities.
Competing demands among agricultural and urban users and environmental advocates for a limited supply of Delta water have played out in political and legal arenas for decades, but in recent years, efforts have been made to forge so-called “voluntary agreements” to end the bickering.
Trump’s election complicated the negotiations, as did the Legislature’s passage of a bill last year that would have locked pre-Trump federal environmental rules into state law. Newsom vetoed the bill after being warned that his signature would torpedo the negotiations and re-ignite water wars.
The federal-state split over water management seems to be headed in that direction anyway, as letters issued by U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and three Democratic members of Congress warned last week.
It’s Difficult to See Any Settlement of the Federal-State Water Conflict in This Election Year
Feinstein has been a major figure in the peace negotiations and in the letters to Newsom and Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, a former lobbyist for the Westlands Water District, urged that a head-on collision be averted.
Feinstein, et al, told Berngardt he must “preserve the longstanding practice of coordinated operation of California’s State Water Project and the federal Central Valley Project. The next few weeks are likely the last remaining opportunity to achieve that outcome.”
The senator and the Congress members also warned Newsom that “California is facing a real risk of a fundamental breakdown of our water delivery system” if negotiations fail.
Given Trump’s campaign promises, it’s difficult to see any settlement of the federal-state water conflict in this election year.
Were Trump to be re-elected, the battle would continue, most likely in the courts, over whether federal or state officials have the last word on Delta habitat protection. Were Trump to lose, farmers would be playing a weaker hand in negotiations over how much water they get from the Delta.
CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.