Newsom Admin Faces Difficult Tests on CA Water This Fall

This fall, as the Trump Administration escalates its attacks on California’s environmental protections, Governor Newsom’s team will face difficult tests regarding California water.  The State will be tested by the Trump Administration and its allies (corporate agribusiness and large water districts), all of whom are working furiously to weaken protections for water quality, endangered species, California’s rivers, and the Bay-Delta estuary.  

While I’m deeply disappointed that Governor Newsom vetoed SB 1, the Governor’s veto is also a troubling sign for several big tests on California water coming this fall:

  • Will the State do anything to Stop the Trump Administration’s anti-science ESA permits for the CVP and SWP? In mid-October, the Trump Administration is expected to issue new biological opinions that rollback existing protections for salmon and other endangered species in the Bay Delta watershed, fulfilling the President’s campaign promises to corporate agribusinesses in the Central Valley to increase water diversions from this imperiled estuary. The Trump Administration went so far as to remove the NMFS scientists who concluded the plan would likely lead to extinction of endangered salmon runs, finding replacements who would rewrite the plan’s conclusions to authorize these rollbacks, rather than following the science that salmon need greater protections to avoid extinction. Without SB 1, will the State push back on the new biological opinions, and if so, how?
  • Will DWR’s CESA Permit Application for the State Water Project be Aligned with the Trump Rollbacks in the Delta? DWR has previously announced that it would not rely on the federal biological opinions because of concerns that the Trump Administration would not use the best available science. In the next month, DWR must propose operating criteria for the State Water Project for its California Endangered Species Act permit. Will DWR propose SWP operations that are aligned with the Trump rollbacks in the Delta, or will DWR propose more protective State operations, including significantly increased winter-spring outflow?
  • Will the Newsom Administration Reject the Current Voluntary Agreement Proposal and Insist on a Scientifically Credible Proposal?  In October, the State is supposed to announce whether it will endorse the voluntary agreements originally proposed in December 2018.  In their current form, these voluntary agreements: (1) fail to include any operating rules to protect salmon and other fish and wildlife at upstream reservoirs and SWP/CVP operations in the Delta, and instead appear to rely on the Trump rollbacks in the Delta to govern those facilities; (2) rely mostly on habitat restoration that is already required; and, (3) would likely result in even less Delta outflow than today, despite the State repeatedly finding that significant increases in Delta outflow is needed to sustain and restore the health of the estuary and its native species. Not surprisingly, corporate agribusinesses and MWD strongly support these voluntary agreements, while environmental groups participating in the negotiations have explained that, “None of our organizations support the current proposed package of VAs because they do not contain sufficient flow and habitat assets to adequately improve conditions in the Bay-Delta estuary as required under state and federal law.” Will the Newsom Administration sign off on Voluntary Agreements that fail to include any operating criteria for upstream reservoirs and SWP/CVP facilities in the Delta, fail to significantly increase Delta outflow, and largely double counts existing habitat restoration projects, as the current proposal does?  

There will be other big tests on water for the Newsom Administration in the coming months, including the Natural Resources Agency’s release of a proposed water resiliency portfolio for the State and DWR’s proposal for a new, single tunnel Delta conveyance project. None of these are easy tests, and climate change will make sustainable water management tests like these ever more challenging.

For decades NRDC has been a watchdog, holding state and federal Administrations—Republican or Democrat—to the same high standards when it comes to public health, environmental and climate protection. This can be personally challenging when an Administration is comprised of people we’ve fought alongside with, but holding government accountable (including our friends in government) is just part of our job.  

While the Governor’s veto of SB1 is a troubling sign with respect to these even more difficult tests this fall, his veto doesn’t mean that the State will fail these coming tests. Indeed, in his veto message the Governor states that California has and will continue to fight every environmental rollback by the Trump Administration. There’s no question that over the past three years the State of California has pushed back on many of the Trump Administration’s rollbacks, frequently with Attorney General Becerra leading litigation challenging the Feds in partnership with other states. The State has strongly defended California’s Clean Air Act authority and has pushed back on many other issues. 

We’ll be watching to see how the Newsom Administration responds to these upcoming tests of sustainable water management, and whether the State stands up to the Trump Administration and its allies in their efforts to rollback protections on California water issues. And if the Newsom Administration doesn’t pass these tests, we’ll hold them accountable and make sure that California’s rivers, salmon and wildlife are protected for future generations to cherish.

I hope you will keep watching them, too. 

About the Authors

Doug Obegi

Director, California River Restoration, Water Division, Nature Program

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