From left, Jason Phillips with the Friant Water Authority, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and Rep. Devin Nunes meet with reporters at a water summit in Tulare Tuesday. Photo by David Castellon
Written by David Castellon
Though President Donald Trump wasn’t at Rep. Devin Nunes’ water summit Tuesday in Tulare, the Congressman told the crowd of about 600 people that the president would be at his own summit in Bakersfield today and might do something that would make them happy.
“The key to focus on is this is the first water we’re getting back in 50 years. Many people have tried, but it took this administration to make it happen,” said Nunes, R-Visalia.
The congressman is an avid supporter of the president, as well as at the forefront of trying to restore at least some of the surface water to farms and communities here that was restricted due to conditions in the Delta.
That might happen today at the water summit Nunes is holding in Bakersfield with U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, who said that while he didn’t know for sure what the president would do at today’s event, he might sign a memorandum approving new, federal biological opinions on the survival rates of Delta smelt and other endangered fish in and around the Delta.
If that happens, it would allow the federal government to alter water flows in the Central Valley Project and use new waterway monitoring methods to at times reduce water flows to tributaries that protect habitats in Northern California and direct more water downriver to farms and communities, including those on the Westside of the Valley, most of which have no wells to fall back on for more water.
How much more water might be directed here?
Bernhardt, who joined Nunes onstage for the Tulare event and will do so again today in Bakersfield, said the amount will vary year to year, with less water likely to be distributed here in dry years and more in wet years, but other factors will play roles in the flow rates, including water temperatures upriver that would affect salmon eggs.
He did tell reporters that under weather conditions exactly like those California experienced last year, he estimated an extra million acre feet of water could be directed through the Delta to farms and communities compared to the current system, in which flow rates are changed under a schedule that doesn’t factor in more real-time data, as the Trump administration is looking to use.
A single acre-foot of water is equal to the amount that would fill an acre one foot deep.
“The biological opinions really lay out a modern plan … a new plan of how we move water, manage water and allocate water, based on new technology, better science, real-time monitoring, temperature control management, and it’s all designed to take care of impacted species in a positive way,” the secretary said.
Early on in his presidency, Trump reached out to farmers and soon took up the cause to get Delta water directed back to farms and communities after environmentalists successfully sued to have the water flows altered to protect endangered fish.
To that end, Trump signed a memorandum in October 2018 directing the Interior Department and other agencies to review the science used to monitor threatened species — including Delta smelt — as well as to obtain new population estimates for the fish.
“This is a serious problem, a problem so serious that we could be looking at a million acres of farmland that could be idle,” Nunes said of the water lost to protect habitats, noting that it was acutely bad during the recent drought years, when some farmers on the Westside reported getting no allocations of Delta water.
“This is a big chunk of the water back, but it’s not nearly enough to ensure we farm all the land from Merced to Bakersfield,” he said. “I think the president understands that. He knows that’s why we talk a little bit about raising Shasta [Dam capacity] and building Temperance Flat [Dam].”
But if Trump signs the biological opinion, he may face legal challenges, in part because of reports that there was an initial biological opinion issued last year in which researchers concluded that altering the existing schedule of Delta water flows could actually do more environmental harm, and the Trump administration brought in different researchers to obtain a more favorable opinion.
When asked about that claim, Bernhardt said the science in the biological opinion the president may approve today is solid and should be defensible if anyone challenges it in court.