Newsom must stand up to Trump assault on the Delta and California’s endangered species

By Kim Delfino, Special to CalMatters

A recent United Nations report concluded that “nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history and the rate of species extinctions is accelerating, with grave impacts on people around the world now likely.”  

It’s not a surprise that President Donald Trump’s administration is worsening this crisis, particularly in California. Trump Administration actions in California combine active hostility, a disdain for science, and anti-environmental policies. 

That anti-California agenda was on full display in October, when the Trump Administration released politically manipulated “biological opinions” under the federal Endangered Species Act that dramatically weaken protections for the Bay-Delta, endangered fish species and commercially valuable salmon runs. 

Given Gov. Gavin Newsom’s track record defending clean air, climate policies, and our coastline from offshore drilling, one would assume that the Newsom Administration would stand up to this latest federal attack.  

However, in an uncharacteristically subdued response, the Newsom Administration stated that it “will evaluate the federal government’s proposal, but will continue to push back if it does not reflect our values.”

California is prosperous, innovative and famously protective of our natural resources. We value the fact that we are one of the most biologically diverse states. We value our iconic salmon fishing industry. We value the Bay Delta as the largest estuary on the West Coast – a place critical for the survival of millions of fish and birds. 

The recently released Trump Administration biological opinions could not be more different from California’s values. Those biological opinions are required to establish how the nation’s largest water project, the Central Valley Project, should be operated consistent with the Endangered Species Act. 

Yet the new federal requirements slash protections for the Bay Delta and critically imperiled salmon, steelhead, smelt, and other species that depend on this ecosystem.   

The victims of this decision include the Bay Delta, its fish, the fisherman who rely on a functioning ecosystem, and Californians who value a healthy environment.  

Who benefits from this rollback? Central Valley industrial agricultural operations, including the politically connected Westlands Water District. 

Several years ago, Westlands employed a lobbyist and litigator named David Bernhardt to fight federal protections for the Bay Delta. Westlands’ political power helped install Mr. Bernhardt as Secretary of the Interior, with the authority to oversee new Bay Delta Endangered Species Act permits.

For a time, federal biologists refused to go along, and prepared a draft biological opinion concluding that increased pumping would threaten salmon, steelhead, other fish species, and even west coast killer whales, which depend on salmon as part of their diet.  

Those scientists were quickly re-assigned and their draft opinion was discarded. Instead, the recently released opinions reject the conclusions of dozens of scientists and give the Central Valley Project a green light to increase water deliveries with dramatically weaker protections and far less oversight.

 And, in a classic example of the “fox guarding the hen house,” the new opinions put the Bureau of Reclamation, which runs the Central Valley Project, in charge of scientific efforts to evaluate their impacts on the Bay Delta. 

Gov. Newsom must fight this latest Trump administration attack on California.  We need the governor to take the same decisive action that he has taken against every other Trump rollback.  The governor cannot pick and choose which environmental values he defends. He must defend them all. 

In the coming months, we will see if the Newsom Administration will fight this federal attack or help the Trump Administration implement it.  

An early signal will be the California Department of Water Resources’  proposed operations for the State Water Project, which operates in parallel with Central Valley project.  If the Department of Water Resources endorses the Trump biological opinions, state agencies will look to the governor to see if he wants to protect California’s largest aquatic ecosystem, endangered species and the fishing industry, or if he wants to give a handful of powerful growers the rollback they want.

In a state that values its biodiversity and its role as an environmental leader, the response to this latest anti-science move by the Trump Administration is obvious: 

Gov. Newsom, the Trump Administration’s extinction plan does not reflect our values.  We expect you to defend the health of our Bay Delta ecosystem for the benefit of all Californians.  

 ___

 Kim Delfino is California program director for Defenders of Wildlife, [email protected]. She wrote this commentary for CalMatters. To read her past commentary for CalMatters, please click here.

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