CA: What Does President Trump’s Water Memo Mean?

Geoff Vanden Heuvel Director of Regulatory and Economic Affairs Milk Producers Council of California

On October 19, President Trump called a press conference, and with Congressmen Valadao, Nunes, McCarthy, Denham and McClintock looking on, signed a Presidential Memorandum on promoting reliable supply and delivery of water in the West. You can read the memorandum here. I learned much more about the implications of this memorandum at the meeting of the Friant Water Authority last week.

There are two major surface water delivery systems in California that move water through the Bay Delta. One is the federally operated Central Valley Project (CVP) and the other is the State of California-operated State Water Project (SWP). There are multiple levels of regulations governing the operations of these two projects. Under normal conditions, the regulation would be carried out by the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB), and they do have rules in place to protect the environment and the other uses of water in the Delta.

In addition to SWRCB regulations, the operation of both projects is being restricted by Biological Opinions authored by two Federal Agencies who implement the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The federal Department of Interior, through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Agency, is responsible for enforcing regulations to protect the Delta Smelt and the U.S. Department of Commerce, through the National Marine Fisheries Agency, is responsible for enforcing regulations to protect certain species of salmon that traverse through the Delta.

The Biological Opinions, which form the basis for the pumping restrictions on the two water projects, are well over 10 years old. Those restrictions are estimated to cost the water projects on average 1.2 million acre-feet of water per year OVER what would be necessary to comply with the water regulations of the SWRCB. In the more than 10 years that these Biological Opinions have been in place there has been NO improvement in the health of either the Delta Smelt or the Salmon.

So, sending millions of acre feet of otherwise usable water to the ocean to protect these fish has not succeeded. And in fact, millions of dollars of scientific research has been conducted on what would actually help the fish and the consensus is that there are other factors impacting the health of the fish apart from simply water flow issues that could be effective in helping them survive. The water user community has been pleading with the two federal agencies for some time to revisit the Biological Opinions and take into consideration the new science without much success. The Presidential Memorandum orders the Secretary of Commerce and the Secretary of the Interior to do just that.

Quoting from the Memo: “The Secretary of the Interior shall issue final biological assessments for the long term coordinated operations of the Central Valley Project and the California State Water Project not later than January 31, 2019”. “The Secretary of the Interior and the Secretary of Commerce shall ensure the issuance of their respective final biological opinions for the long-term coordinated operations of the Central Valley Project and the California Water Project within 135 days of the deadline provided in section 2 (c)(ii) of this memorandum. [January 31, 2019]. To the extent practicable and consistent with law, these shall be joint opinions.”

This memo is a potential game changer.

Certainly, there are lots of obstacles to overcome, but getting the President’s attention on an issue that has caused so much pain for so many people without doing any good for the fish is a very good thing. Maybe science can trump politics and lead the way to a better day for both the fish and the rest of us.

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