With Gov. Newsom’s veto of SB 1, California seems stuck in same old water fight ‘binaries’

By Kim Delfino, Special to CalMatters | 

California got a Friday night surprise when Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed Senate Bill 1.

SB 1, authored by Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins, was intended to help California defend itself against the Trump Administration’s efforts to weaken environmental, public health and worker safety standards. It sought to provide a stronger and more efficient means for state agencies to fill the gap left by federal rollbacks.

Burying an anti-environmental action on a Friday evening is not necessarily unusual. It is common practice by the Trump Administration. 

It is not common to see Gov. Newsom, who takes pride in his environmental accomplishments, unveil such an action against a bill that had overwhelming support from environmentalists, fishery organizations, Native Americans, organized labor, and public health advocates.

Gov. Newsom’s veto has put those people who are fighting to save California’s collapsing Bay Delta ecosystem on high alert.

This veto comes after a massive and furious lobbying effort against SB 1 by agricultural water districts and wealthy farming interests who were determined to kill this bill because it sought to require that the federal Central Valley Project comply with the California Endangered Species Act.

Why is this provision so scary to these special interests? 

Applying our state endangered species protections to the federal Central Valley Project threatens the huge water handout these interests are about to receive from the Trump Administration in the form of soon-to-be released rules.

These new rules would undermine protections for salmon and other native fish, and will result in the delivery of even more water out of the Delta to San Joaquin Valley farms.

The significance of the impending rollback in Delta protections cannot be understated.  The Central Valley Project delivers three times the amount of Bay-Delta water delivered by the State Water Project, the second largest project in this vast system and the source of much of the water delivered to Santa Clara Valley Water District, and Southern California.

How the Central Valley Project operates has an enormous impact fish and on water quality.  It also can influence how the State Water Project is operated, affecting the water supply for millions of people.

SB 1’s provision regarding the application of the California Endangered Species Act to the federal Central Valley Project is consistent with the state’s position for decades. But recipients of this water opposed the legislation, arguing that it would derail the ongoing Bay-Delta voluntary agreements process.

In short, they threatened to walk out of this collaborative process unless Gov. Newsom vetoed the bill. Gov. Newsom, believing that these voluntary agreements are close to being completed, sided with the SB 1 opponents.

However, the draft voluntary agreements and the process to finalize them are seriously flawed and are far from producing successful agreements.

My organization, Defenders of Wildlife, along with other conservation groups working within the voluntary agreement process, delivered a letter to the governor making that very point.

The proposed agreements fall far short of delivering the amount of water necessary to prevent this ecosystem from sliding into further disintegration. They also lack commitments for sufficient habitat and funding.

Unless these problems are expeditiously addressed, our letter said, we must “conclude that these agreements will fail” and we will leave the voluntary agreement process.

The serious flaws in these proposed water agreements exist irrespective of SB 1. However, the debate over SB 1 has revealed even more disturbing aspects of the voluntary agreements, and the process.

The water agencies’ decision to hold the voluntary agreements process hostage in exchange for a veto of SB 1 has deeply damaged the trust of those of us who sit at the negotiating table on behalf of the environment.

Meanwhile, the Trump Administration is poised to release its rollback of existing Bay Delta protections in a matter of weeks and the governor has rejected the important tools that SB 1 would have provided his administration to defend California’s environment.

In his State of the State speech, Gov. Newsom said that to protect our water supply and delta fisheries, we “have to get past the old binaries.”

In looking back at the way in which the water users have opposed SB 1 and continue to advocate for agreements that would fail to protect the largest estuary on the West Coast and the largest salmon producing river system south of the Columbia River, these entities seem loath to abandon old binaries.

Our letter to Gov. Newsom did not end with a recitation of problems. In fact, we believe there is value in the voluntary agreements. 

After the veto of SB 1, the question is whether the governor and his administration will break the “old binaries,” and demand from the water users what is truly necessary to ensure a future that includes a healthy Bay Delta for all.

Kim Delfino is California director of Defenders of Wildlife, kdelfino@defenders.org. She wrote this commentary for CalMatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California's Capitol works and why it matters.

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