Tulare County resolution calls Calif. lawsuit to block fed’s easing of environmental diversions of San Joaquin River water ‘unacceptable’
By Reggie Ellis
TULARE COUNTY – The Tulare County Board of Supervisors is urging the Governor and attorney general to drop their lawsuit challenging the Trump Administration’s easing of water restrictions on the San Joaquin River used to protect endangered fish.
At its March 17 meeting, the Supervisors unanimously approved a resolution opposing California’s lawsuit, titled “The California Natural Resources Agency, etc. vs. Wilbur Ross, etc., which was filed on Feb. 20 in federal court. Ross, who is the secretary of commerce, is named in the lawsuit because President Donald Trump issued a presidential memorandum in October 2018 directing Ross and Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt, who oversees the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, “to minimize unnecessary regulatory burdens and foster more efficient decision-making so that water projects are better able to meet the demands of their authorized purposes.”
The Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) oversees the operation of the Central Valley Project (CVP) and State Water Project, which together provide water for more than 25 million Californians and millions of acres of California farmland. The CVP is a network of dams, reservoirs, canals, hydroelectric powerplants extending 400 miles through Central California. Among those is Friant Dam at Millerton Lake near Fresno, which provides surface water to 17,000 eastside farmers and several cities through the Friant-Kern Canal.
The result of the President’s memorandum was a Record of Decision signed by USBR on Feb. 19. The nearly 900-page document called for modernizing Central Valley Project operations based on the latest science to provide greater water reliability for California farms, families and communities while balancing protections for endangered species and their habitats.
USBR, as well as the National Marine Fisheries Services (NMFS) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), stated that the decision is based on robust modern science and rigorous scientific input and review. For example, by incorporating real-time monitoring into the CVP, the decision enables better decision making and flexibilities to quickly respond to agricultural, environmental and endangered species conditions.
The California Natural Resources Agency, which manages the state’s natural, historical and cultural resources, is listed as the primary plaintiff against the federal government along with the California Environmental Protection Agency and California Attorney General Xavier Becerra. In a Feb. 20 statement, Becerra said the lawsuit asserts that biological opinions prepared by federal agencies under the Endangered Species Act to direct water project operations lack safeguards for protected species and their habitat in the Sacramento and San Joaquin River watersheds, including the Bay-Delta. Filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, the lawsuit requests that the court declare the Trump Administration’s adoption of the biological opinions unlawful.
“As we face the unprecedented threat of a climate emergency, now is the time to strengthen our planet’s biodiversity, not destroy it,” said Attorney General Becerra. “California won’t silently spectate as the Trump Administration adopts scientifically-challenged biological opinions that push species to extinction and harm our natural resources and waterways.”
The Tulare County resolution calls the lawsuit “unacceptable” and an “unnecessary attack on California’s hardworking farmers, farmworkers, and families” as the fifth largest ag producer in the world, including Tulare County, third among counties in agricultural production in the nation with a gross value of $7.2 billion in 2018. It goes on to say Gov. Gavin Newsom “does not understand where our food comes from” and that the lawsuit “does nothing to help ensure that California’s water supply, and in turn America’s food supply, remains steady and secure while continuing to protect the environment.”
Tulare County farmers rely on supplies of surface water from the Central Valley Project which delivers approximately 5.6 million acre-feet of water a year on average to 270 water supply contractors. Litigation dating back to 1988 diverted water from the Central Valley Project to restore fisheries. The most notable for Central Valley farmers was the San Joaquin River Restoration settlement, which diverts as much about 18% of CVP water per year to support a Chinook salmon run and the endangered delta smelt. The San Joaquin River is the valley’s largest river starting in eastern Yosemite National Park and flowing west between Fresno and Madera before hooking north to the Sacramento Delta. Prior to the settlement, the river stopped at Friant Dam northeast of Fresno.
For example, USBR announced last month that Friant Division contractors will likely only receive 120,000 of a possible supply of 2.2 million acre-feet of water per year. It also said nearly 71,000 acre-feet of water will be used to restore a salmon run as part of the San Joaquin River Restoration Project.
“The restrictions on surface water deliveries to Tulare County and the Central Valley have resulted in once productive farmland being fallowed, many farmworkers losing their jobs, and, in part, causing an overreliance on groundwater pumping which in turn has led to dropping water tables, land subsidence, and serious damage to the Friant-Kern Canal and its capacity for delivering contracted water to our farmers,” the Supervisors stated in their resolution.