MANTECA — California is providing health care to undocumented immigrants while President Donald Trump wants to build a border wall, and Gov. Gavin Newsom circumvented the White House with a side deal on auto emissions standards.
But when it comes to water, Trump and California are closer than you might think.
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About 90 minutes from the deep blue coast, the predictable political fault lines stop at the Central Valley, home to the state’s $70 billion agricultural industry.
Environmental laws, droughts and urban growth have led to a three-decade decline in farm water and stoked an acidic political logjam visible to anyone who’s driven down Interstate 5, the backbone of the state’s highway system. Billboards accuse House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of ushering in a “Congress-created dust bowl” and declare “No water = no jobs” through the arid, 450-mile-long valley.
Trump is now poised to deliver on a 2016 promise to send more water to the region. His administration today issued major changes that relax endangered species protections for salmon and Delta smelt, a 3- to 4-inch fish that has long served as a punching bag for Central Valley leaders.
Newsom normally revels in rebuking Trump, but the governor shocked environmentalists last month with the speed with which he essentially sided with the president by blocking legislation that could have stopped Trump’s endangered species rollbacks.
While the Democratic governor has held press conferences bashing Trump within hours of the administration’s past moves on immigration and emissions, Newsom officials struck a far more cautious tone Tuesday. The governor didn’t mention the announcement on Twitter, and California Natural Resources Agency spokesperson Lisa Lien-Mager said in a statement: “We will evaluate the federal government’s proposal, but will continue to push back if it does not reflect our values.”
“Clearly this governor is making a play for the Central Valley to be nice to agriculture, and I think they’re playing him like a fiddle,” said one longtime environmental advocate who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid political repercussions.
Newsom hasn’t been the only California Democrat siding with farmers. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and the House Democrats’ Central Valley contingent took the rare step of coming out against the state environmental legislation before Newsom vetoed it.
Rep. Josh Harder, a Democrat who defeated former Rep. Jeff Denham (R) last year in a toss-up district, was part of the congressional effort to soften the bill that would have potentially blocked Trump’s environmental rollbacks. At a recent town hall in Manteca, Harder had no problem lambasting the Trump administration over the auto emissions fight and other green issues, declaring that “California is in a war with the Trump administration over environmental standards and vice versa.”
Asked about his stance on water, though, Harder was more circumspect. “My biggest job is reminding people that California is more than San Francisco and Los Angeles, and nowhere else is that more true than on water issues,” he told POLITICO in an interview.
“The water politics that I’d like to get away from, that I think most people in our community would like to get away from, is a zero-sum mentality where an environmentalist or fish has to lose in order for a farmer to benefit, and vice versa,” Harder said.
That stance makes sense in the Central Valley, according to one longtime area politician. “Trump is trying to move more water; a Democrat should be cautiously supporting the movement of water, but wary of old fights like fish vs. farms,” said former state Sen. Dean Florez, a Democrat from Shafter, on the southern end of the valley.
Indeed, Central Valley farmers are looking forward to additional water as a result of the new “biological opinions.”
“There’s a lot of things that Trump does that make sense, okay?” said Kole Upton, a second-generation almond, pistachio and corn farmer in Chowchilla, located in the center of the state. “If he was more tactful about it and didn’t rub the Democrats’ nose in it, he’d probably get more help.”
Democrats from the region Tuesday were measured and did not condemn Trump’s plan for California’s main water-delivery system. Harder and other Central Valley Democrats, along with Feinstein, said they will examine the changes and conceded that the science underpinning the Obama-era rules was “more than a decade old and needed to be updated, especially given climate change.”
California’s Central Valley Republican contingent, led by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, cheered the new rules, calling them “a welcome step in the right direction.”
The changes potentially set up a conflict between federal and state water contractors by allowing the Bureau of Reclamation to operate its side of the system differently. Given California’s zero-sum water situation, it would open up an entirely new front in the state’s perpetual water wars, which are currently at a simmer thanks to recent wet winters.
“It’s looming as another facet of the battle between Trump versus California, but it’s more nuanced than vehicle emissions standards or homelessness or any number of issues,” said Rick Frank, an environmental law professor at the University of California, Davis and former state deputy attorney general. “Water politics and water law are all more nuanced.”
The federal government’s biological opinions dictate how much water can be exported from the state’s two main rivers, the Sacramento and San Joaquin, and their tributaries.
Normally, California certifies that the opinions meet state endangered species protections, which are slightly different, and the projects operate as one. The two sides of the system, linked by shared canals, reservoirs and pumping plants, are essentially conjoined twins that share key anatomical features; they have to operate in a coordinated fashion.
Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins thought to head off the conflict by empowering the state to quash the biological opinions. Senate Bill 1 would have specified that the California Endangered Species Act takes precedence over federal law, presumably forcing the Bureau to operate under state endangered species law.
Democrats elsewhere in California warn that the new biological opinions were marred by political influence. They point to the influence of Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, who used to work as a lobbyist for Westlands Water District, the largest customer of the federally run Central Valley Project.
“I’m very disappointed that all these folks appear to be just fine with the environmental baseline getting yanked backwards,” said Rep. Jared Huffman, a Democrat who represents a long, rural swath of Northern California coast. “They’re either silent or complicit in the federal rollback of protections for salmon and now have prevented us from putting a really important backstop in place.”
How Newsom responds to the biological opinions will be telling. Environmentalists are fast losing faith in the governor, whom they view as ultimately motivated by a future presidential run.
“It’s going from leaning left to leaning right, and I think it has to do with his political ambitions,” said the longtime environmental advocate. “When he runs for president and he wants to demonstrate to flyover country that he was friendly to agriculture.”
Newsom justified vetoing SB 1 in part by arguing that it didn’t provide the state any new authority, which confounded environmental groups.
“Based on everything he said publicly, I really don’t think the governor fully understood what was in the bill,” said Kathryn Phillips, director of Sierra Club California. “Either that or he was trying to mislead the public about what was in the bill. In either case, we ended up with a veto that results in not giving the state a key tool it could use to fight the Trump administration’s efforts to manipulate science to satisfy a small but powerful platoon of water contractors and big farming interests.”
Given the likelihood of legal challenges from all sides that could take years to resolve — a suit against the original 2004 biological opinion for smelt is still working its way through the courts — the episode may wind up transcending today’s political fault lines altogether.
“Experience says there are no deadlines in water. Everything gets pushed back. They set these artificial deadlines and everything gets pushed back and the solution of all this is probably going to take years,” said Jeffrey Mount, a think tank fellow with the Public Policy Institute of California.
“Administrations come and go,” he added. “Federal administrations come and go. One might follow the Chinese proverb: ‘If you wait by the river long enough, the body of your enemy will float by.'”