President Trump on Wednesday signed an order in California to re-engineer the state’s water plans, completing a campaign promise to funnel water from the north to a thirsty agriculture industry and growing population further south.
The ceremonial order comes after the Department of the Interior late last year reversed its opinion on scientific findings that for a decade extended endangered species protections to various types of fish — a review that had been spurred by the order from Trump.
Trump said the changes to the “outdated scientific research and biological opinions” would now help direct “as much water as possible, which will be a magnificent amount, a massive amount of water for the use of California farmers and ranchers.”
“A major obstacle to providing water for the region’s farmers has now been totally eliminated by the federal government,” Trump said Wednesday in Bakersfield, Calif., flanked by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), as well as Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, who helped shepherd the changes to the state’s water policy.
Trump’s order comes as the state has taken several steps to deal with the water scarcity that has lasted for decades.
“It would be different if you had a drought,” Trump claimed, despite concerns the state may be headed into another drought. “You don’t have a drought. You have tremendous amounts of water.”
The state is expected to fight the order.
“California won’t allow the Trump Administration to destroy and deplete our natural resources,” California Attorney General Xavier Becerra (D) said in a statement after the speech. “We’re prepared to challenge the Trump Administration’s harmful attack on our state’s critical ecosystems and environment.”
Critics fear the new plan, which would allow large quantities of water to be diverted from the San Francisco Bay Delta to the Central Valley in order to irrigate farmland, would ultimately harm chinook salmon and the delta smelt, a finger-sized fish that for three decades has stood in the way of the diversion.
Trump in October 2018 had ordered Interior to reconsider the scientific evidence that helped bar redistribution of the state’s water. In October of last year, Interior released a new biological opinion limiting the longtime protections for the fish.
During Wednesday’s speech, Trump gave repeated kudos to Bernhardt, who has been mired in controversy for his past work for Westlands Water District, one of the groups pushing to expand water access for central California’s ag industry.
Reporting from The New York Times found that Bernhardt continued to work for Westlands as late as April 2017, the month he was nominated to his previous role as deputy secretary of the department. He filed paperwork to end his status as a federal lobbyist in November 2016.
Interior said Bernhardt had “engaged in various legal services” to support Westlands — but not lobbying.
The story spurred a call from Democratic lawmakers to investigate Bernhardt’s lobbying work and in turn a commitment from Interior’s Office of the Inspector General in April of last year to review seven complaints alleging conflicts of interest or potential ethics violations by Bernhardt.
Interior said its decision to change protections for the fish was not tied to Bernhardt’s past employer.
“There is absolutely no connection,” Paul Souza, a regional Fish and Wildlife Service official, said when the decision was rolled out, adding that he and the others who worked on the issue were “career professionals.”
“We have led these efforts with our team over the past year and these are career professional documentation,” he added.
But environmentalists have viewed the latest biological review with skepticism.
“Like so many other of Bernhardt’s orders, this one ignores the best available science,” Jennifer Rokala, executive director of the Center for Western Priorities, an environmental watchdog group, said in a statement. “This attempt to harm the largest estuary on the West Coast will get tied up in court for years, and the Trump administration will keep losing until it decides to follow the law.
“President Trump and Secretary Bernhardt are draining the delta while they fill the swamp,” she continued, “and Bernhardt’s clients now have a presidential signature to prove their investment has paid off.”
Trump took various jabs at California’s Democratic leadership, including Gov. Gavin Newsom, while lavishing praise on the Republican delegation members that were present.
“After decades of failure and delays in ensuring critical water access for the people of this state, we are determined to finally get your problem solved,” Trump said, referring to the state’s previous water policy as a “disgrace.”
McCarthy also praised Trump for fulfilling his campaign promise to divert more water to farmers in California.
“Isn’t it great to have a president who understands farming is not easy?” he said before the president came on stage. “Isn’t it great to have a president who keeps his promises?”