In summary

Californians will lose if the Trump administration rules over water deliveries are allowed to stand.

By Caty Wagner

Caty Wagner is the Southern California Water Organizer for Sierra Club California, caty.wagner@sierraclub.org.

Brandon Dawson, Special to CalMatters

Brandon Dawson is the acting director of Sierra Club California, brandon.dawson@sierraclub.org.

On the way out the door, the Trump administration committed many environmental and financial scandals. One can cost low-income water users while lining the pockets of one of California’s largest and most powerful water districts.

The focus of one scandal was the failure of the Trump administration to collect required fish and wildlife mitigation costs set out in the Central Valley Project Improvement Act. Passed by Congress in 1992, it established new financing rules. 

First, it made environmental restoration a reimbursable purpose of the CVP. Second, it mandated a comprehensive suite of environmental restoration actions. Third, it required the water contractors, not the taxpayers, to pay for restoration as their cost of doing business.

Among other things, the law included a fishery restoration mandate for the Hoopa Tribe, whose fishery on the Trinity River had been nearly decimated by irrigators’ exports and other water diversions. It also included mitigations for fishery resources and wildlife refuges throughout the Central Valley.  

Significantly, the law specified that water contractors, not taxpayers, would pay for restoration and maintenance of the fishery and wildlife refuge damages. After a very long fight leading up to 1992, the Hoopa, fishing groups and conservationists thought we had won.

Then President Donald Trump entered the picture.

He brought into his administration a raft of appointees and advisers who were focused on derailing anything that required big water users to follow the spirit and content of the law. These folks, led by then Secretary of Interior David Bernhardt,  rewrote the Central Valley Project water financing rules to override environmental protections guaranteed by the law.

These new rules, through new water contracts, would shift millions of dollars in environmental restoration costs from water contractors to U.S. taxpayers.

For example, roughly twice the amount of water used by Los Angeles in a year would be allocated to Westlands Water District – Bernhardt’s old client. That water district is now free to charge exorbitant water rates to low-income communities within their reach, including El Porvenir and Cantua Creek.

If the rules are allowed to stand, Westlands will be allowed to charge these residents for water that they cannot safely use to bathe in or drink. Meanwhile, Westlands will pocket millions in taxpayer subsidies.

Two elected officials can put an end to this Westlands deal: Gov. Gavin Newsom and President Joe Biden.

The Biden administration has the ability to roll back the Trump administration abuses of water law. It can do that by rescinding the bad rules and bad water contracts. Then the president can call on his new Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland to collect the more than $400 million dollars owed by water contractors to the taxpayers to abide by the law’s requirements.

The Newsom administration has the ability to press the Biden administration to take these important steps. The president will want some signal from the recall-threatened governor that such a move is welcome.

Will Newsom have the will to act? So far, the governor has been reluctant to challenge Westlands’ ambition. But this time, it’s clear that Californians will lose if the rules from the Trump administration stand.

Gov. Newsom, we’re looking to you to help right this wrong.

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Caty Wagner has also written about improving the air quality in the Central Valley.

Brandon Dawson has also written about priorities for California’s next drought and the need for a sense of urgency for the crises at the Salton Sea.

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