The Trump administration this week declared that pumping more water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to supply farms will not jeopardize the endangered salmon and smelt that live in the estuary. This clears the way for the federal government to deliver more water, possibly as soon as next year.  

The decision is a big and controversial step toward providing more water for people and less for fish. But the battle, yet another in a decades-long struggle for California’s water, has only just begun.

What was the announcement about?

Earlier this year, the federal Bureau of Reclamation proposed a plan to pump more water from the Delta. But because the waters contain endangered fish – including delta smelt and winter-run Chinook salmon – two fisheries agencies were required by the Endangered Species Act to review the plans and make sure they would not push any species to extinction. 

On Tuesday, these agencies – the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – released their reports, called biological opinions. Through 1,300 pages of analysis, they concluded that the new Central Valley pumping plan “will not jeopardize threatened or endangered species or adversely modify their critical habitat.” Environmental advocates and some fishery scientists disagree.

What will this decision mean for the state’s water supply?

Probably not much – at least not yet – if you aren’t a farmer in the San Joaquin Valley. Experts say it will probably result in between 300,000 and 500,000 acre-feet more water removed from the Delta each year via pumping stations near Tracy. That’s a considerable jump from the annual average of 4 to 5 million acre-feet. (One acre-foot of water is about what the average household uses in six months to a year.) Most of the newly diverted water would flow to San Joaquin Valley farmers. 

The new rules have been welcomed by California growers, as well as the urban water agency that serves millions of residents in Southern California. “While this creates some uncertainty about our future supplies, it is without question a better approach,” said Jeffrey Kightlinger, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.

But Jon Rosenfield, a senior scientist with the environmental group San Francisco Baykeeper, said marginal gains from the plan won’t be worth the harm to endangered species. “They’re going to cause more harm to species that are already circling the drain just so they can get a little more water,” he said. 

A male Chinook salmon returns from the Pacific to spawn. Photo via California Sea Grant/Flickr
A male Chinook salmon returns from the Pacific to spawn. Photo from California Sea Grant/Flickr

What impact will the new rules have on endangered species?

A tiny, silvery fish called the delta smelt once shoaled by the millions at the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers but are now widely considered to be functionally extinct. In fact, few are caught anymore in scientific sampling efforts. Winter-run Chinook salmon historically returned to the Sacramento in spawning runs of hundreds of thousands of adults. Today, a few thousand make the trip each year. In addition, killer whales are an endangered species, primarily because the salmon they depend on for food are depleted.

The agencies that wrote the new water plans are saying they would improve conditions for smelt and salmon compared with previous management guidelines. “We have a plan that is much better for fish, farms, and communities than our current operations,” said Ernest Conant, a regional director with the Bureau of Reclamation, in a press conference on Tuesday.

But others dispute this. They say that the fish are already too close to extinction to tolerate any further water diversions.

“The agencies have said that this won’t make things worse—but my question is, what if things are already worse?” said Jeffrey Mount, a senior fellow with the Public Policy Institute of California. 

The entire Delta ecosystem is in peril, as revealed by annual surveys that have shown crashing populations of several native fish species. Many scientists have concluded that, among other things, more water must be left in the Delta and allowed to reach San Francisco Bay in order to improve the health of the estuary. 

In 2018 the State Water Resources Control Board determined that survival of the fish depends on water pumps taking less water from the estuary. In fact, it said “existing regulatory minimum Delta outflows are too low to protect the ecosystem.”

The new plan would do the opposite – take more water. It also could allow more pumping at times of the year when fish are likely to be near the powerful pumps that draw up the water. 

Paul Souza, regional director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said the new rules will involve eyes-on-the-water monitoring and therefore be more effective. “We’ve got boats on the water several times a week. We know that the fish are in an area by the pumps and Reclamation has agreed to curtail pumping in that event.”

But Peter Moyle, a fisheries biologist at University of California, Davis, questions these methods. “They’ll be depending on very intense monitoring, and that’s hard to do,” he said. 

That’s largely because Delta smelt are now so rare that they are hard to find in the first place. The Fish and Wildlife Service acknowledged this in 2012, when it reported that for every smelt found in sampling efforts, another 100 to 1,000 may have died in the pumps.

Also, the pumps in question – so powerful that they can reverse the flow of the state’s largest river – cannot be turned off in an instant’s notice. “It takes days to slow them down,” Rosenfield said. “This is not a countertop blender.”                  

Was this decision based on science? 

The biological opinions cited scientific data. But politics might have influenced the findings. In July, scientists with the National Marine Fisheries Service warned in a draft biological opinion that the water plan, which was initiated during President Obama’s last year in office, would jeopardize the fish. But the Trump administration replaced those staff scientists with a new team, and just a couple months later they released new conclusions that the fish were not in jeopardy.

To some scientists, this reshuffling of staff and rewriting of the findings looks like fishy business.  

“It automatically makes me suspicious of the findings of the biological opinions, that they will cause no jeopardy,” Moyle said. “You really need to look at these opinions with extra scrutiny.”

Delta smelt are tiny, silvery fish that are endangered.

What will Gov. Newsom do?

“That’s the million-dollar question, and we’re all waiting to see,” said Rosenfield of the San Francisco Baykeeper. In September, Newsom vetoed a bill that wasaimed at defending California against Trump administration rollbacks of environmental laws. 

But there is another weapon Newsom could use to defend the state’s natural resources. It’s called the Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan. An update would establish strict new standards for freshwater flows through the Delta and into San Francisco Bay. 

These standards are meant to protect many uses of water, including rare and endangered species and valued commercial species, like fall-run Chinook salmon. “Newsom could encourage the state water board to complete that update process,” Rosenfield said. 

Newsom’s administration also could enforce the state Endangered Species Act. Another option would be for the state’s water delivery system, which serves millions of households, to throttle back its own pumps when the Bureau of Reclamation turns its pumps on high.     

“California is, and will continue to be, a leader in the fight for clean air, clean water and endangered species,” said Lisa Lien-Mager, Deputy Secretary for Communications for the California Natural Resources Agency. “We will evaluate the federal government’s proposal, but will continue to push back if it does not reflect our values.” 

What are the next steps? Will it wind up in court?

Doug Obegi, a water law attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said there is no doubt that environmental organizations, perhaps including commercial fishing groups, will challenge the new plan in court. If the Trump administration’s claims that it won’t harm endangered species don’t stand up to legal scrutiny, it would be a huge win for environmentalists. But if the plans do hold their own against legal challenges, they could take effect next year. 


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Alastair Bland lives in Sonoma County, California. He writes about water, climate, marine research, agriculture and the environment, and his work has appeared at NPR, Time, East Bay Express, Audubon, Hakai,...