On the first day, February 18, 2020 there was a meeting in Tulare hosted by Congressman Devin Nunes that featured Secretary of Interior David Bernhardt and Friant Water Authority Executive Officer Jason Phillips. The World Ag Expo’s Heritage Center was packed wall to wall to hear what these gentlemen had to say about water. They had a great deal to say.
On the second day, February 19, 2020 there was a meeting in Bakersfield that featured Bernhardt, Nunes, Congressmen Kevin McCarthy, Tom McClintock and former Congressman/candidate David Valadao. This meeting in a hanger at the Bakersfield airport was also packed wall to wall with folks wanting to hear not only what these gentlemen had to say but also what President Donald Trump had to say. Trump also had a great deal to say.
On the third day it was reported all hell broke loose and California Governor Gavin Newsom triggered a threatened lawsuit against the biological opinions setting up yet another tumultuous chapter in the state’s never ending water war. I – and you may also – have witnessed a bit of hand wringing and gnashing of teeth about how Trump and Nunes and the team climbed up on top of the jungle gym to beat their breasts for the rest of the playground to see and therefore pushed Newsom into a corner forcing him to file the lawsuit. No, this is a steaming pile of whatever it is you want to image forms piles that steam.
Newsom Goes to Court
I’ve also heard California Attorney General Xavier Becerra was the one really hot and heavy to file the suit. Not being an expert on the law I can’t definitively state whether or not Becerra could have filed that suit independent of Newsom’s approval, but it seems unlikely he would have done so. The day before the Tulare meeting Newsom sent a letter to Bernhardt stating he was willing to work cooperatively.
“As our respective agencies roll-out actions this week, I want to convey our commitment to staying engaged and working to find a shared path forward that protects our environment in a way that enables continued economic prosperity.” That’s the last paragraph to the letter that didn’t mention anything about lawsuits. In fact the letter also stated “. . . we remain committed to working to resolve these remaining differences in coming weeks and months,” and “Finding common solutions to these complex water challenges is essential.”
During the Tuesday meeting there was praise for Newsom’s engagement with the Valley and actual hope and optimism we have a governor’s attention and even good will. Bernhardt said he wasn’t concerned about a lawsuit from the state. That wasn’t a dismissive statement, he just didn’t think our Governor was going to sue. The new biological opinions are based on much sounder science than previous versions and the expectation is they will stand up in court. The Newsom letter was at least a hint some cooperation had been found.
So, why did Newsom sue? I’d like to ask him but I don’t have his number so I’m going to have to rely on my observations. Newsom has been engaged and it has been a refreshing and hopeful change from Governor Jerry Brown’s literally telling people who disagreed with him on water to, “Shut up.” That’s a quote from Brown, in quotation marks and attributed – I stand by it. While Newsom does have a history of breaking the law and publicly telling people, “Whether you like it or not*” he’s been pretty straight on water. He vetoed SB One, one of the most destructive bills for water cooperation in last year’s gaggle of poorly written legislation.
For whatever reason Newsom decided to sue it wasn’t because of the Republican’s public posturing. The events in Tulare and Bakersfield didn’t move the votes needle. Republicans didn’t gain an electoral advantage by swelling the ranks of registered voters with r’s behind their names and conversely the Democrats didn’t lose voters. California’s map didn’t turn red.
One of the speculative reasons given for Newsom to sue is pressure from the environmental/NGO community who were livid at Trump. I’d hate to think a group of very well financed political contributors would be able to place the very head of our State’s government in a very no win position that forced him to sue. Wouldn’t that be the very epitome of special interest run amuck? No, if anyone forced the lawsuit – bent Newsom’s free will to not file suit, it wasn’t the Republicans.
The First Day
So what did happen the first two days? In Tulare the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act was addressed. No one said we need to get rid of it. For all its flaws SGMA or something perhaps better thought out, is needed. But if the Valley doesn’t receive more surface water supplies with better reliability the economic and social impact of SGMA has rightfully been compared to a natural disaster on par with a major 9.0 (albeit slow motion) earthquake in San Francisco or Los Angeles. Unmitigated SGMA can lay waste to the Valley starting with the most vulnerable – the poor in our disadvantaged communities.
Phillips told the folks in Tulare based on data gathered from a Public Policy Institute of California study on SGMA Dr. David Sunding of UC Berkeley has prepared an economic impact study. Without any new surface water supplies 20 percent of the five million irrigated acres in the San Joaquin Valley won’t have enough water to continue farming. That’s one million acres and the impact will be felt more on the Valley’s west and south sides. Also the location of the most economically vulnerable and great deal of the Valley’s section of the Pacific Flyway for migratory waterfowl and other wildlife refuge areas.
While agriculture as an industry will be hit the first; like a steel mill that can’t get enough iron ore – the ripple effect will hit every segment of society in the Valley. Conservative projections show permanent double digit unemployment. You can’t replace ag with any other industry that relies on water if there is no water. Even the most pie in the sky, far out versions of any new, green deal employment opportunities needs water. The social consequences of a permanently depressed economy will reach beyond the Valley.
The San Joaquin Valley Water Blueprint was formed to address this problem. Sunding’s report will soon be released and the Blueprint will tackle the issues that go along with getting more water and how to mitigate some of the negative impacts from SGMA. Be very sure the plan doesn’t include changing SGMA to allow increased pumping based on the current situation nor will it make any proposals that would harm the environment.
This plan hasn’t been released yet but one so called social justice group has already condemned it saying it wants industry to, “. . . work with residents to better manage water and create jobs that are helpful, not harmful.” Which is what the Blueprint is actually trying to do. So there is some educating and alliance building left to do.
After the Tuesday presentation United States Bureau of Reclamation’s Regional Director Ernest Conant signed the Record of Decision officially accepting the new biological opinions as federal policy. I didn’t see him put pen to paper but a ROD is a document that would be signed by an executive at Conant’s level and not a Cabinet Secretary or President. Which brings us to day two.
A large hanger on the northside of Bakersfield’s Meadows Airport was the location of President Trump’s visit to the Valley. A friend and I had attended the Buena Vista Water Storage District’s board meeting on the morning of the 19th and motored on over to Bakersfield from Buttonwillow with plenty of time to spare. As a member of the press if I didn’t check in by 12:30 pm I wasn’t going to be allowed in. I’ve done one other presidential visit as a journalist and they don’t make exceptions to the rules for anyone.
We crossed Highway 99 heading east on Merle Haggard Drive and took a tunnel under the runway and upon emerging back into the sunshine it was obvious parking was going to be a challenge. We opted to park on the roadside and walk about a mile and quarter. We arrived at the check in station on foot well before many of the much better connected were able to get to their reserved parking.
There my friend and I parted ways; he for a very long line of folks who had been invited to attend and me to much shorter line of media and press people. I was issued a pass suitable for framing and allowed in an area with tables and chairs and a platform raised above the crowd to watch the proceedings. Unfortunately the table and chairs were behind the platform which was blocking the view of the state where the President would soon speak and you couldn’t see anything. I opted to stand on the platform.
Did I say, “soon speak”? I and an estimated 2,000 other folks stood and waited for hours. I saw women in high heels give up and stand barefooted; and I was fortunate – the platform was made of wood and not concrete like the floor where most folks waited. I also say an estimated 2,000 because I couldn’t get the Secrete Service to give me any kind of a crowd estimate. They really didn’t want to talk. Also, I was too far from the stage to get good photos. But we all know what Trump looks like.
Still it was a lot of fun even though my back got tired and I could have taken a nap under the platform if the Secrete Service hadn’t keep waking me up and making me get back on the platform. I didn’t really try to lay down under the platform but I did consider it. Especially after they closed the doors to the hanger and it got rather stuffy.
I couldn’t tell you when our President arrived because I’d given up looking at my watch by the time the lights flashed, the rock music swelled and the crowd when bat guano with cheering and stomping and applauding and whistling. There he was, Donald J. Trump, billionaire, celebrity and President of the United States. I confess I don’t agree with all of what he says and sometimes I believe he’d be better off not saying it. But, I love the man for his disdain for political correctness. He sees it for what it is; a cancerous, soul crushing, Orwellian exercise of thought policing. Trump is the kind of leader who isn’t going to get caught being a naked emperor.
In a time when far too much of the media tacitly and overtly endorses insanity it’s good to have someone in power state the sky is blue because it is blue. Not the sky is green because I want it to be. Kids were told America is such a wonderful place because you can be whatever you want to be. Which means we’re a relatively classless society and our ability to succeed isn’t limited by who gave us birth. Unfortunately it’s come to mean if you’re born a boy but want to be a girl or visa versa – go for it, this is America where you can be whoever you want to be. I can understand someone wanting to be a different sex. Kind of, at least I understand being dissatisfied with one’s current situation. However, if someone can’t agree to recognize what sex they are, not what they want to be, how can they be trusted with making good decisions based on less irrefutable facts? And what of the people who urge them on? I digress.
Trump was in Bakersfield to take a stand on providing more water to the San Joaquin Valley. And it is an election year so things were partisan. Local growers were invited to the stage to give testimony to the need for more water. Politicians were invited to speak about why their dedication to bringing more water to the Valley is a good reason they should receive the majority of votes to keep them or bring them to office.
President Trump signed a memorandum titled “Developing and Delivering More Water Supplies in California”. It was directed to the Secretaries of the Departments of Commerce and Interior and the Chair on the Council for Environmental Quality.
The Presidential memorandum directed the Secretaries to work together. Section Two was titled, “Enhancing Water Supplies While Appropriately Protecting Species and Habitats” and it stated, “In response to my memorandum, a Plan and ROD were issued today. The new framework set forth in these documents is expected to deliver more water to communities while using science and investments appropriately to protect affected species and their habitats. This is a good first step, but I believe more can be done. Therefore, I direct the Secretary of the Interior and the Secretary of Commerce to build upon the success of the Plan and ROD by supplementing the resulting operations, consistent with applicable law, to make deliveries of water more reliable and bountiful.”
It also stated, “This memorandum shall be implemented consistent with applicable law and subject to the availability of appropriations.” Nothing about ignoring the environmental laws and consequences nor bankrupting the nation to achieve these goals. In my mind signing the memorandum was the foundational reason for the rally and it did of course provide for some campaigning. Nothing we haven’t seen from both sides of the aisle for the past couple of hundred years.
However, Trump did say some extremely unflattering things about Newsom but didn’t come close to Congresswoman Maxine Waters’ “Let’s make sure we show up wherever we have to show up,” she once said at a rally in Los Angeles. “And if you see anybody from that Cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station, you get out and you create a crowd. And you push back on them. And you tell them they’re not welcome anymore, anywhere.”
As a result of the new ROD the Bureau was able to release its water supply allocation report many weeks earlier than usual. That is because the federal approvals were streamlined under the new ROD which gave the Bureau a big jump in stating allocations. In the past water supply allocations weren’t released until April or later which limited growers’ ability to plan the year’s crops until past planting season. That in turn caused uncertainty in lending and projections in needed goods and services and often caused economic uncertainties.
The allocations were low, really low; 15 percent for South of Delta Central Valley Project contractors and 20 percent of Class I and zero Class II supplies for Friant. There could be an increase; there could be a Miracle March, it’s happened before. But even with the low allocations CVP contractors up and down the Valley had good things to say about the process. While disappointed in the low amounts they were pleased to know under the new biops the reasons were poor weather and hydrology and not regulatory whims.
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