California Gov. Newsom Picks Fish Over Farms

Newsom is leaning on the side of fish in the state's never-ending fish v. people debate, but is at least trying to deal with farm and urban water needs.


When a union president was asked about his end goal in negotiations with his members' employers, he responded with: "More." No matter the proposal, he always demanded more of whatever was being offered to his union.

I thought of that cynical retort when looking at the latest battle over water flows through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta—the tangled web of rivers, sloughs and marshland that supplies fresh water to millions of Southern Californians. When it comes to water supplies, environmentalists always demand "more" water for habitat preservation—they're never satisfied with any compromise proposal.

Gov. Gavin Newsom's administration has given environmentalists much of what they presumably want as it released a 610-page draft Delta environmental report recently that calls for $1.5 billion in habitat restoration among other environmental projects. The governor simultaneously announced a lawsuit against the Trump administration to halt its plan to increase federal water exports to thirsty farms located south of the Delta.

He's leaning on the side of fish in the state's never-ending fish v. people debate, but is at least trying to deal with farm and urban water needs. The last thing the administration wants is a crisis of water availability in the midst of the ongoing electricity crisis. But as much as they cheered the lawsuit announcement, environmentalists were aghast at the report because the state plan will allow some additional water for farms.

There's no pleasing them. An attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council slammed the report as "Trump lite." Others were more circumspect, but urged Newsom to take on the state's big water users. Anything short of more water for unrestricted river flows simply won't do.

This particular battle goes back to 2018, when the Trump administration announced its plan to increase water deliveries to farmers. Federal scientists released an 1,123-page biological opinion arguing that the water diversions would threaten Chinook salmon. The administration called it a draft and then in October released its final opinions that justified the additional water releases.

The state runs the State Water Project and the feds run the Central Valley Project, so the bifurcated authority complicates the situation. The feds' final plan allowed more water flows when it was safe to do so, but also enabled reduced pumping when fish species were most in need of the water. It was hardly radical, but congressional Democrats slammed it as a scheme to divert water to "politically connected irrigation interests" and obliterate fish.

Earlier this year, Newsom drew the ire of environmentalists when he vetoed Senate Bill 1, which would have required state agencies to adopt any federal environmental restriction that had been weakened or eliminated at the federal level. He opposed the bill because it threatened voluntary water agreements among water users, agencies and officials, which were being hashed out since the Brown administration. Those negotiations would have collapsed had SB 1 become law.

Most of the state's water simply flows out unimpeded to the Pacific Ocean. Since the completion of the State Water Project, California's population has grown dramatically—yet the state has not built adequate storage to capture and store water during wet years. To make matters worse, state officials have thrown obstacles in front of every project designed to feed more water into our statewide plumbing systems.

The state has opposed raising the Shasta Dam because of concerns about a small, wild river nearby. The California Coastal Commission has balked at a desalination plant at Huntington Beach over concerns about plankton. U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein has been gunning for the environmentally friendly Cadiz project in the Mojave Desert, which would tap an aquifer the size of Rhode Island and send water into the Colorado River Aqueduct to supply Southern California water users. That project has passed many levels of environmental review.

And Newsom has threatened the future of the Delta tunnel plan by cutting it down from two tunnels to one, which imperils its economic viability. That project seeks to address both key issues—fish habitat and human uses. Currently, river water gets tangled in the messy estuary, where regulators shut down the pumps near Tracy anytime they find endangered smelt in the fish screens. The project, funded by water users rather than general taxpayers, would restore the degraded estuary's habitat to permanently boost fish populations and then re-route the southward-bound water under the region.

Environmentalists offer no solution other than flush more water into rivers as people conserve more, even though nonnative fish species such as striped bass are the biggest threat to salmon. They also propose multimillion-dollar schemes to build fish ladders and other contraptions to save a few fish—often at the cost of tens of thousands of dollars per fish.

Californians need "more," also—more water storage and a more sensible water policy. Unfortunately, the administration's latest efforts, and the environmental response to them, probably means less of both.

This column was first published in the Orange County Register.