The Trump administration issued a new scientific opinion Tuesday that suggests increased water pumping in state and federal irrigation systems will not hurt fish and other marine wildlife in the California Delta.
The decision has been attacked by environmental groups, who argue that Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt is simply working on behalf of California farming interests, for whom he once worked as a lobbyist — a claim the department denies.
The latest dispute is over a decision to redo a biological opinion submitted in July that determined that pumping increases would, in fact, jeopardize not only fish in the the delta but also endangered killer whales, which eat salmon.
That finding of jeopardy, which would have required more severe restrictions on pumping, was suddenly pulled, and the new opinion, released Tuesday, removed the jeopardy finding.
The fight over California’s scarce water supplies has continued for decades, ever since environmentalists succeeded in using the federal courts to impose restrictions on irrigation to protect a small native fish called the Delta smelt. The environmentalists argue that pumping increases the salinity of the Delta, which they blame for declines in the smelt population. Farmers argue the decline has other causes, including the presence of alien predator species.
Last year, the California State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) voted to approve the Bay-Delta Plan, which would require water authorities to maintain higher levels of water flow within the San Joaquin River system during the spring months. Farmers protested the policy, which was imposed despite voluntary agreements with local water authorities to improve fish habitat. The Trump administration opposed the plan, which it promised to fight.
Though Trump was overwhelmingly defeated in California in the 2016 presidential election, he has cultivated close ties with the farming community, who have supported him despite concern about the effects of the China trade war on local agricultural exports. The president has repeated promises to make sure that farmers have the water they need to grow their crops, much of which comes from a decades-old state and federal system of dams and aqueducts.
The new biological finding will not be finalized until January, the New York Times notes. The Trump administration insists the federal government will protect vulnerable fish species even as more water is made available to farmers.