California’s Trump-blocking environmental bill may be delayed in fight over water

It started out as a bold effort by the California Legislature to prevent the Trump administration from rolling back protections for the environment and labor.

The bill, proposed by one of the state’s most powerful Democrats, would attempt to negate every environmental regulation proposed by President Donald Trump’s administration for the duration of his term or terms. It has a clause that would expire the day he leaves office in 2025 if he wins a second term.

Now, in the waning days of the legislative year, the debate over Senate Bill 1 has become a classic fight over California water. Facing fierce lobbying from well-financed water districts, the bill’s author, Senate President Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, acknowledged Tuesday that the bill might get pulled from consideration until next year.

Democratic members of Congress, led by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a powerful voice on California water issues, have demanded changes to the bill to allow for more flexibility.

And influential farm and urban water groups say SB 1 would derail a series of carefully-negotiated but still tentative water-sharing agreements supported by Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration, which are designed to usher in an era of cooperation between farmers and environmentalists.

SB 1 appeared to be progressing through the Legislature until last week, when Feinstein and other members of Congress voiced their objection. Atkins’ office softened the bill’s language late Tuesday, but the bill’s opponents said their concerns haven’t been addressed.

Speaking to reporters at the Capitol on Tuesday, Atkins acknowledged it’s possible the bill could be abandoned this year.

“We haven’t made that decision. You know how it goes,” she said. “We get to the last few days. We’re still in serious discussion. We are still having conversations with (Newsom’s) office on this very issue.” The legislative session ends Friday.

Atkins introduced the bill as a response to Trump’s efforts to rescind longstanding protections for workers and the environment. The bill is dubbed the California Environmental, Public Health, and Workers Defense Act.

Among other things, the bill originally directed state agencies to employ environmental rules and regulations that were in place Jan. 19, 2017 — the day before Trump took office. The amended bill now gives state agencies the right to employ those pre-2017 defenses on water issues, but doesn’t require them to.

Either way, critics said SB 1 would create a legal nightmare in allocating California’s overstretched water supplies that are pumped from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the ecologically fragile hub of the state’s water delivery network.

Read Next

Newsom’s office has been trying to finalize a series of agreements, originally brokered by former Gov. Jerry Brown, to essentially provide endangered salmon and other species with more water from the major rivers flowing into the Delta. Water agencies have offered to spend $800 million on spawning grounds and other habitat-restoration projects, while the state is proposing to spend $900 million, for a total package worth $1.7 billion.

If SB 1 passes, “you basically just blew up the voluntary agreement process and then we hunker down for a long period of litigation,” said Jeff Kightlinger, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which provides water to almost half the state’s population.

Kightlinger said the districts that belong to the federal government’s water system, the Central Valley Project, would pull out of the voluntary agreements if Atkins’ bill becomes law. Kightlinger’s agency, which serves 19 million Southern Californians, is a member of the State Water Project.

The largest of the federal CVP contractors, Westlands Water District, confirmed that it would withdraw from the settlement plan.

The bill would “make it impossible for public water agencies to enter into the voluntary agreements,” said Tom Birmingham, general manager of the district, which brings irrigation water to more than 500,000 acres of farmland in Fresno and Kings counties.

Birmingham said the settlement plans depend on using more flexibility to manage how water flows in and out of the Delta. SB 1 would eliminate that flexibility by requiring managers of the Delta pumping stations to abide by decade-old “biological opinions” written by scientists at the federal fisheries agencies.

Adding urgency to the bill, the Trump administration is planning to finalize a new set of “biological opinions” governing the Delta, under the stated goal of maximizing Delta pumping to farms in the San Joaquin Valley.

Environmental groups were outraged when a leaked draft of the revised environmental documents surfaced last month. In them, federal scientists warned Trump’s water plan would force critically endangered California salmon even closer to extinction, and starve a struggling population of West Coast killer whales.

The Trump administration is in the process of revising the documents. A final decision is due any day.

With the Trump administration threatening the lives of endangered species, the state needs to act immediately to pass SB 1, said Kate Poole, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, which has been pushing hard for the bill.

“It’s just going to get worse as this administration goes farther down (this) path,” Poole said. “So that’s why we think it’s urgent that this passes now.”

Rep. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove, said he appreciates state lawmakers’ concerns about the Trump administration’s potential rollback of protections for fish. “I don’t trust Donald Trump and nobody should,” the congressman said.

But he believes SB 1 goes too far.

“It is just not proper and good for (endangered) species or anybody to lock in an outdated scientific model,” he said.

Garamendi joined Feinstein and other Democratic congressmen from Central Valley districts — including Jim Costa, Josh Harder and TJ Cox — in calling for changes to SB 1 last week.

Harder, D-Turlock, said the California bill “would have returned us to those decades of litigation, decades of fights around water, and it wouldn’t be productive for people that care about salmon and it certainly wouldn’t be productive for people who need water for their way of life, like agriculture in the valley.”

The Bee Capitol Bureau’s Hannah Wiley and Kate Irby of McClatchy’s Washington, D.C. Bureau contributed to this report.

Related stories from Fresno Bee