FRESNO — With a recent victory over environmentalists in tow, the Trump administration was back in federal court again Thursday arguing it could continue boosting water to California farmers without harming salmon despite the state careening toward another drought.
The Trump administration is defending guidelines passed in 2019 that gave it more leeway in deciding how much water it can safely take from California’s largest estuary and sell to farmers. The feds claim the rules, or biological opinions, were crafted with the best scientific data and are a much-needed update to pumping limits enacted by the Obama administration in 2009.
But environmentalists and the state believe the rules were poisoned by political influence and meant to help President Donald Trump back up his campaign promise to “open up the water” to California farms. The parties have sued and are pressing a federal judge to toss the biological opinion and force a new set of environmentally sound rules.
In the meantime, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation — which operates one of the country’s largest water delivery systems with the Central Valley Project — has in recent weeks gulped past previous limits while the overarching lawsuit plays out in the Eastern District of California.
The bureau claims the number of endangered fish species such as Chinook salmon and steelhead trout that have been killed or injured by pumping stations thus far in 2020 are below historical trends and well within its incidental take permit.
As is often the case, the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta is once again the focus of California’s interminable water wars.
The drainage point of California’s largest rivers, the delta is the largest remaining estuary on the West Coast and the state’s most important water source. Stretching across 1,100 square miles and five counties, the delta is the hub of massive federal and state water projects which prop the state’s $50 billion agricultural industry and provide drinking water for over 25 million people.
For decades, the delta water supply has been jointly managed by the feds and the state. But the relationship has shattered during the Trump administration.
On Thursday, California and an assortment of fishing and environmental groups urged a judge to require the feds to abide by the old limits for the remainder of the month while the case continues. In oral arguments held remotely due to the coronavirus pandemic, they claimed that if allowed, the excess pumping will “trap and kill endangered species at a crucial time in their life cycles and threaten habitat critical to their survival.”
Attorneys for the U.S. Department of Justice and various agricultural water suppliers accused the state of filing a last-minute motion for preliminary injunction meant to “waste” government and judicial resources. The federal court has combined California’s case with a matter filed by Natural Resources Defense Council, Defenders of Wildlife and Golden State Salmon Association.
“In reality, [the state] has no justification for sitting out two months of briefing only to raise new allegations now, on the eve a decision regarding the [environmentalists’] preliminary injunction motion,” the feds countered in their opposition brief.
During the marathon hearing, U.S. District Judge Dale Drozd hinted the plaintiffs’ requests for a ruling by May 11 will be a tall task. Not only is the case complex and involves dozens of parties, he said the chaos caused by the pandemic is impeding the court’s ability to move swiftly.
“Based upon the amount of briefing and evidence and information that’s already been presented to the court, I have to say that I feel you have all overestimated my abilities,” Drozd said bluntly.
Drozd, appointed by President Obama in 2015, has already denied the environmentalists’ request for emergency relief and allowed the feds to exceed the 2009 pumping limits for a brief stretch in April. He said Thursday — during oral arguments that were interrupted routinely by background noise from participants and the public listening on their cellphones — that he’s doing his best to rule in a timely manner despite the obvious hurdles of handling a potentially landmark water lawsuit remotely.
“I’m trying to bring some sense of order to this chaos. What you all have told me in one way or another is ‘no judge, here it all is, decide it in four days.’” Drozd said. “All I can say is thanks.”
The dispute over the delta’s future is playing out on several fronts outside of Drozd’s courtroom and is becoming more complicated by the minute.
Irked by the Trump administration’s biological opinion, California for the first time issued managing rules for its State Water Project that were crafted without federal input. The state said its pumping rules are stricter and will prop salmon by ensuring enough water is in the river systems during critical spawning times.
Environmentalists believe the state’s version doesn’t go far enough, while water suppliers argue the second set of rules will cause further confusion in the management of the delta. Both sides have filed a variety of lawsuits against the state framework.
Meanwhile, the Golden State is preparing for another potentially devastating wildfire season after a mostly dry winter.
In its final snow survey of the season, the California Department of Water Resources reported the Sierra snowpack is only 37% of the average for this date, meaning the prospect of drought looms over much of the state. Both the feds and state largely base their take of delta water on the spring snowpack reports, and farmers’ surface water allocations will likely suffer and they will be forced to rely more heavily on groundwater.
— By Nick Cahill