Jolting California Officials, Trump Administration Looks to Rewrite Rules for Delta Water

The Trump administration is trying a bold new tactic to bring more water to Central Valley farmers — one that could come at the expense of millions of urban Southern Californians.

In an unprecedented move, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation served notice to California officials Aug. 17, stating it wants to renegotiate a landmark 1986 agreement governing the big federal and state water projects and how they pump water through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to their member agencies in southern half of the state.

Reclamation’s efforts could significantly alter the balance of power between the state and federal governments as they share control of the water that flows through the Delta. The estuary is the hub of California’s complex north-to-south water delivery system.

The complicated 1986 deal requires both sides to surrender water at times from their reservoirs, to serve Delta environmental needs and other purposes. Now the feds want to keep more of their water on hand, for delivery to Valley farm-irrigation districts and other customers of the federal government’s Central Valley Project, leaving less for the State Water Project. Experts say hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of water could be at stake.

The two sides have been discussing possible revisions to the agreement for a while, and there’s considerable uncertainty whether the feds can successfully wrest more water away from the state. But Reclamation’s move is clearly ratcheting up tensions between state and federal officials over how to divide and deliver the state’s precious water supply.

State officials “were hoping this day would not come,” said Greg Gartrell, a Bay Area water policy expert with 30 years of experience in Delta issues.

The feds recently threatened to sue the state over a proposal to reallocate the flows on the San Joaquin River, giving more water to fishand less to Valley farmers. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who oversees Reclamation, then ordered aides to develop an action plan aimed at “maximizing water deliveries” to agriculture and other Central Valley Project customers.

During the 2016 campaign, President Donald Trump told a rally in Fresno he would deliver more water to Valley farmers, who have struggled for years with reduced supplies.

Meanwhile, Central Valley Project and State Water Project members are in conflict over Gov. Jerry Brown’s plans to build the Delta tunnels, which are supposed to ease the estuary’s environmental troubles and enable both projects to pump water more reliably. So far the big farm-irrigation districts in the CVP have refused to help pay for the tunnels, increasing the burden on State Water Project agencies.

Now comes the attempt by Reclamation to rewrite the rules on Delta pumping. Although the two sides informally have been discussing revisions for two years, Reclamation’s formal “notice of negotiation” landed the same day as Zinke’s bluntly worded memo on water deliveries and sent a jolt through the halls of state government.

If the feds get their way in the Delta, there would be less water for the State Water Project and its most important customer: the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which serves 19 million residents of Los Angeles and surrounding areas. That leaves state officials anxious, experts say.

“You have 19 million people who are caught up in the State Water Project,” said Sacramento water lawyer Stuart Somach, who helped negotiate the 1986 agreement while serving in the federal government. “If you have leverage over 19 million Californians ... you’ve got quite a bit of leverage.”

Learn More at the Sacramento Bee