Bad News for the Bay-Delta Tomorrow: Trump Admin's New BiOps

On October 22 the Trump Administration is expected to release new Endangered Species Act permits, known as biological opinions, that are almost certain to significantly weaken and/or eliminate existing federal protections for salmon and other endangered species in California’s Bay-Delta watershed. The Trump Administration is rolling back these federal protections for the stated purpose of “maximizing water deliveries” to agribusinesses and other water districts served by the federal Central Valley Project and State Water Project.

These biological opinions are the end result of several years of political interference by a federal administration intent on dismantling the protections required by existing biological opinions, led by Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt, a former lobbyist and counsel for the Westlands Water District, the largest water district in the Central Valley.  When he represented Westlands, Bernhardt sued to overturn the existing protections through litigation and lobbied Congress to preempt or overturn their requirements, but he failed (the biological opinions were upheld by the courts). Now that Trump appointed him to the Department of the Interior, he has spent the past two years scheming to overturn these protections, personally involved in matters that would reward his former clients with increased water diversions from our imperiled estuary.

We expect the Trump Administration will conclude that weakening or eliminating most of the protections required in the 2008 and 2009 biological opinions will not jeopardize endangered and threatened species. When career scientists with the National Marine Fisheries Service concluded on July 1, 2019 that the proposed project would jeopardize endangered salmon and violate the Endangered Species Act, the Trump Administration simply removed those scientists and set to work rewriting their biological opinion to greenlight the Trump Administration’s proposal.

This expected “no jeopardy” conclusion flies in the face of the best available science, which indicates that stronger protections are needed to prevent the extinction of our native fish and wildlife, like endangered winter-run Chinook salmon and Delta Smelt, particularly in light of the effects of climate change. Indeed, in 2016 then Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, appointed by President Obama, concluded that, “the reinitiation process will likely lead to new or amended biological opinions that will increase protections for these species,” and that these new biological opinions would likely reduce water supply for contractors of the Central Valley Project and State Water Project. Independent scientific peer reviews of these biological opinions have identified numerous scientific flaws with these forthcoming biological opinions, and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife has also raised significant concerns about eliminating these protections.

Yet rather than strengthening protections for fish and wildlife, the biological opinions expected this week would significantly increase water diversions by weakening or eliminating federal protections for endangered species required by the 2008 and 2009 biological opinions, including: significantly increasing export pumping in the Delta and allowing pumping to violate the -5,000 cfs Old and Middle River flow requirements any time there is “any precipitation in the Central Valley;” eliminating carryover storage requirements at Shasta Dam and other requirements necessary to ensure adequate cold water for salmon in dry years; eliminating the San Joaquin River inflow: export ratio; and eliminating the role of NMFS and FWS scientists in determining real time operations. We also expect that the biological opinions will approve devastating numbers of fish to be killed; for instance, earlier drafts would allow the water projects to kill 100% of the endangered winter-run Chinook salmon below Shasta dam in at least 2 consecutive years. And if that wasn’t bad enough, the biological opinion also purports to approve enlarging Shasta Dam (despite the requirements of state law and without analyzing the effects of doing so), as well as approving water supply contracts promising millions of acre feet of water diversions without actually analyzing the effects of fully implementing those water supply contracts.

The Trump Administration’s forthcoming biological opinions will be disastrous for California’s endangered species like winter-run Chinook salmon if they are implemented. But it’s not just our native fish and wildlife at risk: these biological opinions also threaten the livelihoods of thousands of fishermen across the West Coast who depend on healthy salmon runs in the Central Valley, and the implementation of these biological opinions could significantly reduce water supply for Southern California cities (since the State Water Project has to comply with the requirements of the California Endangered Species Act). 

Polls show that Californians don’t want to sacrifice our endangered fish and wildlife, and thankfully the State has an Untapped Potential of sustainable new water supply solutions that don’t threaten our rivers and wildlife, including improved water use efficiency and water recycling. But Trump promised to turn on the water and eliminate environmental protections in order to benefit corporate agribusinesses, and that’s what they’re trying to do.

They may not have been so obvious as to have used a Sharpie to write the word “no” in front of “jeopardy” to change the conclusions of the biological opinions. But the Trump Administration has broken the law with these biological opinions.

About the Authors

Doug Obegi

Director, California River Restoration, Water Division, Nature Program

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