Newsom must stop the Westlands water grab and save the San Francisco Bay-Delta

By Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, Special to CalMatters

The San Francisco Bay-Delta, the largest estuary on the West Coast, was once the home to fisheries that produced five million pounds of canned salmon a year.

The Delta’s largest city, Stockton, is where children swam, rowed boats, and canoed after school in places made navigable through their parents and grandparents’ labor. Today, our children in Stockton will not enter a river or slough to swim, or fish, or row. Our urban waterways are stagnant, thick with algal scum and toxins.

Harmful algal blooms proliferate in the San Francisco Bay-Delta. Algal blooms are regularly found from Stockton to Discovery Bay with new smaller ones becoming visible in sloughs between these cities. 

Increased water exports in the summer and fall in combination with climate change impacts will lead to an eruption of harmful algal blooms across the South Delta in the years ahead unless action is taken. Our once-vibrant estuary will become a toxic swamp.

The Delta is dying because so much of the water is being exported to corporate agricultural interests in the southern San Joaquin Valley. One of the largest consumers of Bay-Delta water is the Westlands Water District. 

Westlands is the 800-pound gorilla in California water politics. Years ago, fearing its water supplies were decreasing, Westlands hired David Bernhardt and paid him more than $1 million to be their lobbyist. Now that Bernhardt has become Trump’s Secretary of the Interior, the Westlands plan is in full effect.

It took national news news stories breaking about conflicts of interest between Interior Secretary Bernhardt and Westlands Water District for the Bureau of Reclamation to release a significant Westlands water delivery contract for public review. 

Within this new contract, water deliveries for up to 1.15 million acre-feet annually will be made available for Westlands to meet maximum contract allocations, despite worsening conditions for the Delta and its 4 million inhabitants.

Initially, federal scientists wrote a draft report that found increasing water exports would harm California’s native salmon population, a species already imperiled. Those scientists were reassigned. Now, the Trump administration and David Bernhardt have released a new proposal, and guess what? Westlands can grab even more water from the Bay-Delta.

What should worry everyone in the SF Bay-Delta region is whether the Newsom administration will stand up to Trump and Bernhardt’s efforts to harm the Delta.

Gov. Newsom has never been one to hesitate expressing his values in opposition to President Trump. However, there was no direct response from the governor to the latest proposal, beyond an ambiguous statement: “We will evaluate the federal government’s proposal, but will continue to push back if it does not reflect our values.”

A deliberate weakening of standards for water quality and quantity that results in more pumping could destroy the estuary before a shovelful of dirt is ever turned over for a Delta tunnel.

The Newsom administration needs to make clear where it stands on Delta management. More importantly, the Newsom administration must act on its water values forcefully, and not succumb to the water grab being orchestrated by the Trump-Bernhardt-Westlands alliance.


Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla is executive director of Restore the Delta, [email protected] She wrote this commentary for CALmatters. To read her past commentary for CalMatters, please click here.

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