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Trump Admin Moves to End Protections for Endangered Fish Threatened by California’s Water Wars

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A young fingerling Chinook salmon leaps out of the water at Pillar Point Harbor in Half Moon Bay, California on May 16, 2018. Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

The Trump administration is rolling back protections for endangered California fish species, a move long sought by a group of wealthy farmers that Interior Secretary David Bernhardt continued to lobby for months before he began working for the administration, The New York Times reported Tuesday.


The new policy, released early this week by the Commerce and Interior Departments, would allow more water to be pumped from the San Francisco Bay Delta to irrigate farms. Scientists in the past have found this would harm the delta smelt and West Coast salmon species that swim in the delta, as well as the killer whales that feed on them. But the new "biological opinion" ruled that the fish would not be harmed by diverting more water to agriculture.

"The servile Interior Department has hijacked and subverted the scientific process," Noah Oppenheim, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, said in a statement reported by NPR.

Bernhardt lobbied on behalf of Westlands Water District, a group representing around 1,000 large farmers in Central California, from 2011 to 2016, including pressing Congress to weaken Endangered Species Act protections for the delta smelt, according to The New York Times. Four months after he was confirmed as Deputy Interior Secretary, he phoned the Interior official in charge of delta smelt protections and asked him to conduct a new biological opinion.

President Donald Trump also signed a memo in 2018 asking for protections to be rolled back, The Los Angeles Times reported. But in July of 2019, scientists with the National Marine Fisheries Service found that pumping more water to farms would put endangered winter-run Chinook salmon, threatened spring-run Chinook salmon, threatened Central Valley Steelhead and endangered Southern Resident killer whales at risk for extinction.

Instead of heeding this warning, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Pacific Southwest regional director Paul Souza, who was coordinating the reviews of salmon and smelt protections, discarded the document and put a new team together to write a new report. Two documents released this week then found that the increased pumping would not harm the salmon or the delta smelt.

The administration's new plan would create hatcheries to breed fish and monitor fish populations in real time so as to slow pumping only when they are nearby, according to NPR.

"We've been able to create a much smarter approach that focuses on real-time management," Souza told NPR. "Our commitment is that we will be as, or more protective than we have been in the last 10 years."

But environmental groups say that monitoring the fish this way is difficult, especially since their populations have already plummeted. Chinook salmon have lost around 90 percent of their spawning grounds to dams.

"These new biological opinions weaken virtually every protection required by previous decisions, eliminating clear, science-based habitat protections," Kim Delfino, California program director for Defenders of Wildlife, told NPR.

The new pumping rules could go into effect by January, according to the Los Angeles Times. But environmental groups are likely to sue to block them.

"Given the level of political interference and the junk science that has been used ... it would be very unsurprising if these were not challenged and eventually overturned in court," Doug Obegi, a Natural Resources Defense Council attorney who beat back similar changes proposed by President George W. Bush, told the Los Angeles Times.

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