Delta Flows: The Political Science of Bernhardt’s Biological Opinions

By Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla

Governor Gavin Newsom has never been one to hesitate expressing his values in opposition to President Trump. However, as noted by Politico, and plenty of California water policy folks, there was no direct response from the Governor to the Trump administration biological opinions filled with species protection and water quality rollbacks and miscalculations. Instead, we heard from 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.”

Shouldn’t the Newsom administration be ready by now to articulate their sincere values regarding Delta management? And more importantly, shouldn’t the Newsom administration be ready to act on their water values as forcefully as they do gas emissions, immigration, and a host of other issues?

The California Natural Resources Agency to its credit has held hundreds of meetings with water stakeholders, including Delta interests, on a myriad of topics. They have received deep, well-thought-out strategic water planning reports from various interests statewide to inform the creation of their Water Resilience Portfolio. Shouldn’t have all this talking, reading, and thinking prompted leadership to think through how it would feel about rollbacks for species protections and increased water exports from the Delta? It’s not like they didn’t know the revised biological opinions were coming from the Trump administration.

We find the state’s tepid response disappointing/disingenuous because we were told in one meeting with officials that a tunnel project would not become a way to take more water from the Delta and that water export volume would be determined by high water events and timing. It seems that leadership was only talking about exports for the State Water Project, figuring the Central Valley Project was not of state concern as it wasn’t part of the proposed tunnel project – never mind the Coordinated Operating Agreement (more on that shortly).

 Or perhaps the Newsom administration’s idea is to quietly support the maximization of water exports now so that when prolonged droughts return, the water projects can “take less” from a historically increased delivery benchmark? That way water exporters and supporting state agencies appear to be shining examples of conservation and stewardship with their newly proposed technologically advanced tunnel. 

Either way, if the Newsom administration cannot stand up to the Trump administration for sensible exports, Delta water quality, and fishery protections (almost half a million acre-feet of additional water will now be up for the taking by Westlands Water District), how could we trust the Newsom administration’s proposed tunnel operations in the future? 

While we wholeheartedly respect, support and applaud the work that the Newsom administration has done to advance the human right to water and drinking water quality protections, water quality is also a challenge for Delta communities in total, and for its environmental justice communities in particular. We are not convinced, however, that Delta communities are remembered by the Newsom administration in internal deliberations of their water values in the way that we had hoped.

Ultimately, growers within the Westlands Water District know that water supplies are decreasing. This is what our staff heard from growers when we were in attendance at Westlands workshops regarding California WaterFix during 2017. However, with direct aid from Department of Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, (who earned over $1 million as a former Westlands lobbyist and who frankly still functions as one today), Westlands is arrogantly skipping environmental review for a renewed water delivery contract associated with the Coordinated Operating Agreement, (the formal agreement by which the Central Valley Project and State Water Project are operated to ensure state and federal exporters receive promised water deliveries). Within this new contract, water deliveries for up to 1.15 million acre-feet annually will be made available for Westlands, and the new, weaker biological opinions will help them grab a greater amount of water exports to meet maximum contract allocations, despite worsening conditions in the Delta. 

The cycle of San Joaquin River pollution will continue from Westlands irrigating its drainage-impaired lands with even greater volumes of Delta water.  Meanwhile, chill hours for stone fruit and other key crops grown by Westlands growers will continue diminishing, while night-time temperatures will continue rising within their desert farmlands, leading eventually to decreased crop production. The almonds grown today are simply a placeholder to harden demand for a new Westlands. The new Westlands will be urban in nature, selling smaller and smaller allotments of water for higher and higher prices to sprawling San Joaquin Valley housing tracts and strip malls, all unsustainable due to nature’s water limits in a changing climate.  

To make the contract work, Secretary Bernhardt influenced significantly the rewriting of the Delta’s biological opinions. What worries us is the Newsom administration’s silence about Bernhardt’s concentrated efforts to harm the Delta. Why would the Newsom administration function as silenced witnesses to bad actions springing from swamp-like conflicts of interest within Trump’s administration? 

The conflicts of interest in California water can be found in opposing corners. Senator Dianne Feinstein’s ties to Westlands and David Bernhardt are well documented despite her and her staff’s ability to handle Westlands’ and Stewart Resnick’s water business under the radar with quiet letters and diplomacy. While San Joaquin Valley Congressional Republicans, and their Orange County ally, Representative Ken Calvert, were quick (and not surprisingly joyful) in celebrating the endangered species rollbacks for extreme water pumping, San Joaquin Valley Democrats (and their Northern California friend Congressman John Garamendi) were equally quick to applaud the “faux science” of not operating the pumps when fish are present. Under Senator Feinstein’s and agriculture’s outsized influence, too many members within California’s Democratic Congressional delegation see water transfers as the sole solution to our water challenges. We do not doubt that Senator Feinstein is attempting to press the message of maximizing water deliveries to Governor Newsom. 

What Senator Feinstein and the San Joaquin Valley Congressional delegation refuse to admit is that once the fish are at the Delta pumps, it is too late. Water quality management for the Delta’s people, fisheries, irrigation, and other beneficial uses, needs to be managed by season and in its totality – not in an on-and-off mode, like a light switch, because operators locate some fish near the pumps.  

Political leaders from either party, who promote overtly or accept quietly that water exports from the Delta can be endlessly increased, see the Delta as nothing more than a water switch-station.

A deliberate weakening of standards for water quality and quantity that results in more pumping could very well destroy the estuary before a shovelful of dirt is ever turned over for a tunnel. Local Delta water leadership and politicos also need to wake up to this new threat to weakened Delta regulatory protections and become more vocal in their defense of water for the estuary. 

Once the home to fisheries that produced 5 million pounds of canned salmon a year, and waterways where Stockton’s children rowed boats and canoed after school in places made navigable through their parents and grandparents’ labor to build levees — harmful algal blooms (HABs) are now proliferating in greater and greater numbers each and every year. Our children, who do not have access to powerboats, will not enter a river or slough for a swim, or fishing, or rowing. Our urban waterways are stagnant, thick with algal scum and toxins. They are not clean, safe, or usable sources of water for recreation, relaxation, and delight. Algal blooms span from Stockton to Discovery Bay with new smaller ones becoming visible in sloughs between these cities, and new HABs are developing near middle-class recreational areas like the Delta Water Ski Club. Increased water exports in the summer and fall in combination with climate change impacts and reduced in-flows (which we anticipate with the voluntary agreements) will lead to an eruption of HABs across the South Delta in the years ahead.

Present generations of Delta children do not know what we have lost in terms of fisheries and water quality. A lack of thriving waterways has left them without hands-on access to partake in their natural heritage. This is what our friends with California’s Indian Tribes now fear for their future generations, resulting from efforts to export more and more water from their ancestral rivers and homelands throughout Northern California. 

If the Newsom administration does not fight to manage the Delta for improved water quality, our grandchildren, like the children of the southern San Joaquin Valley, will be left to fight for clean drinking water. That’s what a future with deteriorating water conditions in the Delta will become. The promise of a healthy natural world will be lost for good. California will become a land of water haves and have-nots.

That’s what California is being reduced to by the Trump administration’s faux biological opinions for the Delta. We pray the Newsom administration will not succumb to the backstage Feinstein-Bernhardt-Westlands alliance for commodified water, managed by the few. We will continue to work for the restoration of our waterway commons in the Delta and for all of Californians.

Algal Blooms at Stockton Waterfront, Summer 2018

Algal Blooms in Discovery Bay, Summer 2019

Algal Bloom at Delta Water Ski Club, Summer 2019

Algal Blooms at Mormon Slough in Stockton, Fall 2019

RTD does not know the source of this photo but has a request with the State Archive for photo credit assistance.  We understand it was taken on a Sacramento dock.

Farm workers in the Delta, courtesy of the Bank of Stockton

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