Don’t be fooled, Modesto farmers — Trump’s California water plan doesn’t help you.
By The Modesto Bee Editorial Board
That’s because his plan may blow up delicate negotiations among all interests receiving water from rivers flowing to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, especially those here in the Northern San Joaquin Valley — the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers.
These on-life-support negotiations, called voluntary agreements, present our best chance at finding peace after decades of water wars. Such a truce would provide respite and certainty not only to our farmers, but also to the fish industry and environmentalists aligned with it. And, to the city of Modesto, whose water customers rely in part on treated water from the Tuolumne.
Former Governor Jerry Brown and his successor, Governor Gavin Newsom, see the value in voluntary agreements; we applauded when Newsom in September quickly vetoed misguided state legislation, Senate Bill 1, because it threatened to derail these all-important negotiations. Newsom risked severe political blowback but stuck to his guns because he knows that compromise, in the long run, is preferable to protracted court battles.
The water agencies in our area with the most at stake — the Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts — have championed the voluntary agreements. They long ago accepted that giving up some of their Tuolumne River water would be far better than the state Water Resources Control Board’s much-maligned “water grab” proposal, which is anything but voluntary.
One might expect the irrigation districts and our local farmers to applaud Trump’s move on Wednesday — rolling back environmental restrictions to make it easier for Delta pumps to send a lot more water to farmers in the south Valley, and potentially to Southern California cities. With typical hyperbole, Trump told the cheering crowd that they are “going to be able to do things you never thought possible.”
Let’s be honest: Some of the president’s rationale rings absolutely true. For example, his administration’s biological opinion (enabling more water to move south) is based on recent science that is head-and-shoulders above outdated data that the state Water Board relied on to propose the hated water grab. The legislation vetoed by Newsom would ignore this sound science as well.
But the country’s negotiator-in-chief has zero interest in negotiating California’s water wars. His only goal is a complete and crushing victory for his political base. That’s why he signed the rollbacks in Kern County, which favored him by 13 percentage points over Hillary Clinton in 2016. And that explains why he was accompanied by fawning, loyalist office-holders such as U.S. Representatives Kevin McCarthy, Devin Nunes and Tom McClintock.
Also in attendance was David Bernhardt, who previously lobbied Washington legislators on behalf of the powerful Fresno-based Westlands Water District before joining Trump’s cabinet as Interior secretary. Westlands stands to gain as much or more than anyone under Trump’s water management plan, shepherded by Bernhardt.
The president’s Wednesday visit, coming just before the March 3 Primary, was calculated to help his cronies, not our farmers.
The next day, Thursday, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra filed a lawsuit challenging the president’s plan. Westlands previously indicated that such a lawsuit could prompt it to pull out of the voluntary agreements, threatening complete collapse just as we were nearing a healthy and sustainable compromise that might have been good for all.
Had Trump not inserted himself into the issue, Becerra would not have sued and negotiations would have stayed on track.
A resolution to this mess may await the outcome of the fall presidential election.
Meanwhile, if the voluntary agreements do blow up, California’s water future will be decided in courts over the next decade or so. In that case the only winners, as they say, will be the lawyers.