Delta Flows: The Trump-Newsom, Newsom-Trump Water Plan for the Delta

By our Executive Director, Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla

One of Restore the Delta’s primary functions has been to rally people to advocate for comprehensive policies that would be protective of water quality and quantity for the San Francisco Bay-Delta estuary.

For years, meeting that objective included fighting the Schwarzenegger and Brown Administrations’ various conveyance projects ending with the twin tunnels.

A Moment of Hope and Collaboration

During the last year, with a brief respite in tunnel planning, we were able to begin working on plans for greater overall environmental protections for the region. We created a comprehensive analysis of the flood threat to the Delta and made sound, researched recommendations to the Newsom Administration about next steps for dealing with climate change impacts manifesting in the Delta. Part of this effort included documenting the problems with Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs) in the Delta – and making the connections to how this water quality challenge leads to air quality problems and numerous public health problems.

We have also tracked the dangers of the Trump water plan for the Delta and have spoken out when President Trump’s directives, carried out by Department of Interior Secretary Bernhardt on behalf of Westlands Water District, have weakened overall protections of Delta water quality and species. 

Trump Intervenes

The Trump Administration’s involvement in California water has emboldened the State Water Contractors to go for broke in grabbing all the water they can through their Long Term Operations plan. The State Water Contractors’ General Manager even went so far as to say that they had to fight SB1, a species protections law primarily helpful to the Delta, because the Trump water plan had to be preserved. Yet, too many on our side sat on the sidelines during the fight with Governor Newsom over SB1, where the Newsom Administration began to unravel protections for the Delta. Devotion to Trump’s plans for overall environmental deregulation caused a blindness in some to the Delta’s needs, even though species protections in the Delta result in better water quality for all beneficial uses. 

Sadly, as we had anticipated, killing SB1 is where Governor Newsom began to move the goalposts for Delta protections, and since that time he has championed a revision of state policies aimed at greater Delta water exports, all bound up in junk science created by the Trump Administration. We are proud at Restore the Delta that we consistently fight bad Delta policies and for a healthy estuary and community. We will not give an inch on water quality protections because both the Trump and Newsom administrations will then take a metaphoric mile of water for the agricultural special interests who fund political futures.

Water Buffalos Return to Battle

In 2019, Westlands Water District has approved a CEQA exemption for itself to execute a permanent water delivery contract of up to 1.1 million acre-feet of water – even though such volumes of water will not be available in the majority of years. Such a contract will help Westlands transform themselves into a water broker agency as they are forced to retire drainage impaired land out of physical necessity. 

In addition, Westside growers have a two-year experimental period in which to discharge more selenium into the San Joaquin River, landing in the SF Bay-Delta estuary. Westlands is also forming a new JPA with the San Luis Water District to hide how they are going back into the bond market for $200,000,000, to finance its drainage settlement with the Federal government. How will Westlands meet the debt load in the third and fourth year of drought? Probably like they did with financing from the Federal government in another three-card monte scheme for twin tunnels financing that ended up with Westlands employees paying large SEC fines several years ago.

The Newsom Administration is now offering a series of “voluntary agreements” with inadequate Delta flows for fisheries and healthy waterways. Westlands’ threats to walk from negotiations seems to have worked on the Governor as he has yet to file a promised lawsuit against the Trump administration over bogus science in the new Delta fish biological opinion.

Climate Reality Lacking in California Water Planning

The state’s new Fourth Climate Change Assessment found that accelerated permafrost melting will not only increase sea level rise, but the melting will increase droughts and major storm events throughout the Pacific Coast states. The Newsom Administration has created an inadequate Water Resilience Portfolio that ignores his administration’s own climate change assessment and related impacts on water supply. He has announced planning for a mega-single-tunnel project that will only be built to a two-hundred-year flood standard, that cannot be operated during floods. We surmise from the State Water Contract Long Term Operations Plan that pumping limits will be abused during dry periods because bond debt repayment will have to be made somehow.

To add insult to injury, there is no funding presently in the budget for the levee subvention program (state match to local funding for levee maintenance and improvement). 

We listened to recent Newsom Administration promises of increased outflow during dry water years, when in truth, they are tying flow numbers to the rollbacked standard of the Trump water plan. DWR leadership now admits that they worked with the Trump Administration to create “the science” of operational standards for the Federal and then State water pumping rules. They are loosening the standards now with a 15-year regulatory rubric, that still needs major buy-in across the state, so that the rules can be rewritten at the end of the contract around the time tunnel construction is completed. Of course, adaptive management means, they will build the tunnel first and figure out how to operate it later, claiming climate change as the basis for future decision making, while ignoring the best available science on climate change in the present.

Was Collaboration just PR?

At Restore the Delta, we feel whiplashed. We kept our word to work with the administration by writing reports, attending meetings, and making solid, fact-based recommendations through numerous processes. The Newsom Administrations claims great pride in working with Delta communities, but seems to pat stakeholders on the head, without addressing and RESOLVING concerns or ACTING on Delta recommendations made by us, elected officials, or other environmental groups – like completing a solid water inventory before moving forward with planning a tunnel – or creating a loading order for regional water projects and then determining if a tunnel is needed and at what size – or increasing flows through the Delta and into the Bay to restore water quality and protect species which the best available science deems as necessary. 

We have not continued with the old binaries as Governor Newsom claims as an excuse to dismiss opposing concerns. We offered a rubric for sound analysis to get to the best outcome for all. But instead, Governor Newsom claimed at the PPIC conference that water deliveries have to be made available to protect jobs in the San Joaquin Valley, even though industrial agriculture has never lifted a San Joaquin Valley community from poverty, and available jobs continue to decrease with agricultural mechanization.

The Governor has not met with the Delta environmental justice community. But he poses for photos with Westlands farmer John Harris, who has been instrumental in crafting bad Delta water policies with Senator Feinstein and the Trump Administration. Governor Newsom remains silent about the Westlands contract — a corrupt Federal taxpayer giveaway – that will result in San Joaquin Valley farm towns paying even higher rates for polluted drinking water for bond repayments. His administration is pushing forward a voluntary agreement that will bring State Water Project operations in alignment with a bad federal standard, and they are wrapping it up in a feel-good green bow of faux environmentalism and the rhetoric of concern. He will have participating parties without having impacted parties from the Delta in the room for negotiations. 

Time for a New Game Plan

“A fish rots from the head,” wrote Shakespeare; something we know literally and politically all too well in the Delta. The Trump-Newsom, Newsom-Trump water plan will leave California unprepared for our climate future. There is no “resistance” in California political leadership in regard to the Trump administration when it comes to fighting for a solid water policy that will best serve all Californians. The Newsom administration will work in drips and drabs when it is politically expedient to appear as resisting a bad Trump administration water idea.

But there is resistance in the Delta and other communities throughout the state. We will not go quietly. We will fight the Governor’s status quo water plan – a plan that has been recirculated every five years by every governor for the last 40 years – until he gets it right by bringing supply and demand into balance in a way that is equitable for the majority of the state, and not just special interests. To end the old binaries, the Delta must be protected while improving regional water supplies. That means protection of water quality for the Delta’s people.

Seeing that the Newsom Administration refuses to consider this balancing, to complete a needs assessment of its own water plans and projects, to prioritize regional plans before considering a tunnel, to evaluate public health and safety needs for Delta people, then “No Tunnel!” is the only response this region can offer. And remember as we send out new signs and bumper stickers in the weeks to come, we were the party that sought true collaboration. 

We did the work, and we attempted to meet Governor Newsom halfway. He didn’t keep his word to the Delta.

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