ICYMI: Sierra Club California – Gavin Newsom’s Muddy Water Policy

Reprinted with permission from Sierra Club California:

Dear friends,

As I watch the way Governor Gavin Newsom is handling water policy, I have two thoughts.

First, the governor is on a track that seems driven by adherence to some of Governor Jerry Brown’s worst water policies. And, second, he’s not getting good advice.

As they did with Brown, the bad water policies related to the San Francisco Bay Delta and a tunnel are overshadowing the good water policies the administration is advancing.

Newsom’s water problems started on election day in 2018, even before votes had been counted in the governor’s race. That day, as lieutenant governor, he signed onto a letter with then-Governor Brown, instructing the State Water Board chair to postpone a public hearing set for the very next day about new water rules affecting rivers that flow into the Delta.
Photo by Department of Water Resources
Those rules were backed by environmentalists and supported by science. But big water contractors more commonly aligned with Donald Trump wanted out of the rules and suggested a “voluntary agreement” approach. 

To put that in perspective, when a big water contractor asks for a voluntary agreement, it’s kind of like a kid asking for free run of a candy shop. Forever. 

That letter began Newsom’s process of painting himself into a corner with those water contractors. Many of those contractors serve huge industrial farming operations in the Central Valley, such as the perennially shady Westlands Water District whose former lobbyist is now Donald Trump’s Secretary of the Interior responsible for setting a range of water policy affecting California.

The water board chair at the time, Felicia Marcus, declined to postpone the public hearing with less than 24 hours notice. Soon after Newsom was inaugurated, he canned this widely respected veteran of water politics and policy. 

When Newsom sent Marcus packing, Newsom lost exactly the kind of seasoned water advisor he needed.

Since then, it’s been hard to discern within this governor’s water policy a logical vision that distinguishes it from the vision set decades ago by the Trump-aligned water users. 

On the one hand, Newsom publicly endorsed important wildlife protections like the endangered species act. 

On the other hand, when big agriculture complained about a bill that would have protected California’s endangered species from Trump administration regulatory rollbacks, he vetoed it (Senate Bill 1). Those ag interests saw the bill as a threat to their plans to guzzle more water from the Delta.

On the one hand, he signed an executive order that promises to make regions more water resilient and develop a portfolio of needed projects. 

On the other hand, his administration produced a draft portfolio that relies on—wait for it—the Delta tunnel, the epitome of non-regional non-resilience. (You can find our detailed comments about that draft portfolio here.)

On the one hand he condemned the Trump administration’s “biological opinion” that would allow more water to be taken out of the Delta system than science suggests is feasible without killing off a range of species. 

On the other hand, his administration appears to be bickering internally and dragging its feet about filing a promised lawsuit to challenge the Trump administration’s seriously deficient biological opinion. Why? The Delta tunnel is part of the reason.

Indeed, the expensive, environmentally damaging, and potentially useless tunnel is always part of the reason this governor’s water policy is so illogical. Just as it was with Jerry Brown’s policy.

Generally, Newsom isn’t seeking environmentalists’ advice on water system policy. His horseshoe⁠—the inner circle of advisors sitting within the governor’s capitol office⁠—doesn’t have any water or natural resources experts with policy chops to help inform him.

We have no evidence the governor is listening to anyone but the water contractors and agricultural interests. He retained Brown’s tunnel-supporting leaders at the Department of Water Resources.

Has the governor simply made a political calculation that it’s smart politics for an ambitious person to side with the powerful tunnel proponents⁠—as one of his political mentors, Senator Dianne Feinstein, does?

I hope not. And even if so, there’s still time for him to change.

Sincerely,Kathryn Phillips
Director, Sierra Club California

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