President Donald Trump says he’s making good on promises to deliver more water to California farmers, reigniting the state’s decades-old water wars.
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California’s decades-old conflict over distribution of water among farmers, urban users and environmental enhancement bears an uncanny resemblance to the decades of sectarian struggles in the Middle East — minus the bloodshed.
In both arenas, periodic efforts are made to forge enduring peace agreements, but just when they seem to be bearing fruit, they are undermined by some new flareup.
Gov. Gavin Newsom has been trying to finalize what predecessor Jerry Brown began, a series of so-called “voluntary agreements” that would shift water from San Joaquin Valley farmers to bolster flows through the environmentally fragile Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. They are “so-called” because agricultural water districts were willing to entertain such deals only because the state Water Resources Control Board was poised to unilaterally impose curbs on farmers’ supplies.
However, the state is not the only major power in water wars. Much of California’s agricultural water is supplied by the federal government, mostly through its Central Valley Project, and when Donald Trump became president, he promised farmers he’d protect their interests.
Last week, Trump went to Bakersfield to personally declare he’s making good on that promise. His Bureau of Reclamation finalized a new operating policy that would provide more water to farmers, whose supplies had already been squeezed by a series of court orders.
Trump told a cheering crowd that the new plan will bring “a massive amount of water for the use of California farmers and ranchers and all these communities that are suffering” and criticized state officials for allowing “millions and millions of gallons (to be) wasted and poured into the ocean.”
“Maybe we can get the governor to come along and really be friendly on this one,” Trump said — but even before the president spoke, Newsom had denounced the new federal plan and promised to fight it in the courts.
Newsom’s office said he “will file legal action in the coming days … to protect highly imperiled fish species close to extinction.” However, Newsom also sent a letter to Interior Secretary David Bernhardt saying, “We remain committed to working to resolve these remaining differences in (the) coming weeks and months.”
Bernhardt is a former lobbyist for California’s Westlands Water District, which supplies farmers on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley. He had praised the new plan as “a significant milestone in executing on President Trump’s commitment to deliver safe and reliable water for communities in California to the agricultural and environmental benefit of the entire country.”
So where does Trump’s action leave the months of negotiations on the voluntary agreements Newsom sees as a peace treaty in California’s water wars?
Up in the air.
Having Trump on their side bolsters the farmers’ complaints about being compelled to give up water to help fish migrations in the Delta while simultaneously facing new state limitations on tapping underground aquifers via wells. They are unlikely, therefore, to finalize the voluntary agreements until they see how Trump’s move plays out.
Newsom can tie up the federal policy in the courts, at least for a while. He also must contend with environmental groups that never liked the voluntary agreement approach, favoring the mandatory farm water cuts proposed by the Water Resources Control Board.
Everything probably will be on hold until the contending factions know whether Trump is re-elected in November. If he is, the farmers could play a stronger game. If he’s succeeded by a Democrat, Newsom would regain the upper hand and a Democratic president would be expected to strengthen environmentalists.
The stakes are huge for everyone involved — and for California itself.