Water in a stream Tim Hearden
Water flows in a creek in Northern California.

Calif. breaks with feds over water system operations

Department of Water Resources to avoid use of proposed federal biological opinions in operating the State Water Project

California water regulators this week telegraphed another fight with President Donald Trump's administration over the environment, announcing plans to use their own data to operate the State Water Project rather than rely on new federal biological opinions proposed last month.

State officials also said Thursday they plan to sue the federal government over the proposed rules, arguing its conclusions are not scientifically adequate and fall short of protecting species and the state’s interests, according to The Associated Press.

“We value our partnerships with federal agencies on water management,” the state’s Secretary for Environmental Protection Jared Blumenfeld told the AP. “At the same time, we also need to take legal action to protect the state’s interest and our environment.”

The threat prompted the following statement from Brenda Burman, commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation:

”From the beginning, we’ve been focused on cooperative solutions with the State of California to bring reliable water supplies to farms, families, communities and the environment. Today’s announcement by Governor (Gavin) Newsom is disappointing in his preference to have judges dictate these important projects instead of the career professionals at the federal and state levels who have developed a plan based on the best science and significant input from the public. If that’s their choice, we’ll see them in court.”

Groups support opinions

Farm groups have said the new biological opinions for fish in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta could bring more water to often-parched San Joaquin Valley orchards and fields.

The opinions, finalized Oct. 21 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, could add flexibility to operations of the Central Valley Project, argue the California Farm Bureau Federation and other organizations.

The opinions will affect water operations in the Delta and were three years in the making, as federal officials sought to update analyses of Delta smelt and other impacted fish that were more than a decade old.

“We expect these new biological opinions to approach fishery recovery through a variety of tactics, including habitat restoration, improved science, and flexibility in dedicating enough water at the right time to maximize fishery benefits and improve water deliveries to people,” CFBF president Jamie Johansson said when the new opinions were unveiled.

Instead of relying on this data, California's DWR announced Thursday it will seek approval from the state Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) to operate the SWP in a way that officials say will improve protections for fish and complies with the California Endangered Species Act (CESA).

According to a news release, the agency issued a draft document prepared under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) that identifies potential operational changes to protect species and manage the SWP based on real-time conditions in the Delta ecosystem, including additional flows dedicated to the environment.

Drawing on best data

DWR’s draft Environmental Impact Report (EIR) draws on a decade of science and a quantitative analysis of best-available data on flows, modeling, habitat and climate change impacts, agency officials argue.

“This draft points to a more sophisticated and nimble way to manage the State Water Project to improve our ability to protect species and operate more flexibly. This is essential in order to capture water when it’s available and leave more water when and where fish need it,” said DWR Director Karla A. Nemeth.

Environmental groups cheered the state’s decision but criticized the state’s proposed rules, with Doug Obegi at the Natural Resources Defense Council referring to them as “Trump lite," according to the AP.

“It’s not as bad as what’s in in the Trump (proposed rules), but it’s certainly less protections than what’s in place today,” he told the wire service.

Federal officails have contended their opinions are the result of a review requested jointly in 2016 by the Bureau of Reclamation and the California Department of Water Resources, which are coordinating their operation of the two water projects.

Federal Fish and Wildlife officials say they carefully evaluated effects of the two projects on 16 listed species, including the smelt, and worked with Reclamation to modify proposed operations to minimize impacts.

Environmentalists angered

The state's latest move comes after Newsom angered environmentalists earlier this year by vetoing a bill that would have locked in provisions of the Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act and other federal regulations as they existed when then-President Barack Obama left office.

Newsom sympathized with groups that argued the bill by state Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, could derail voluntary agreements that are being negotiated for water deliveries south of the Delta.

The federal government is already suing the California State Water Resources Control Board over a minimal flows plan for the Stanislaus, Merced and Tuolumne riverst hat officials say threatens operations of the New Melones Dam east of the San Joaquin Valley.

TAGS: Regulatory
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