Anglers, E.J. advocates contest Governor’s executive order to waive environmental laws for Big Ag

Stewart and Lynda Resnick. | 

By Dan Bacher | 

On February 13, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed a controversial executive order that he claimed protects the state’s water supplies “from the impacts of climate-driven extremes in weather” by waiving environmental standards that require more water to be released into the Delta to protect salmon, Delta smelt and other fish.

The order would allow the state to hold more water in Central Valley reservoirs. The order is the result of political pressure from the state’s powerful agribusiness industry, who complained the state was allowing too much water from storms to flow into the San Francisco Bay-Delta Estuary and then into the ocean.

Big Breaks for Big Ag

Anglers, conservationists and environmental justice advocates fired back quickly in response, arguing that the plan authorizes measures that will end up devastating already imperiled Central Valley salmon populations, Delta smelt and the San Francisco-Bay Delta Estuary. 

“After years of prolonged drought, recent storms resulted in the wettest three-week period on record in California,” argued Governor Gavin Newsom in a press statement. “The storms have been followed by an unseasonably dry February, however, and the state could see a return to warm and dry conditions during the remaining weeks of the wet season – just as heavy rains in fall 2021 gave way to the driest January-February-March period in over 100 years.” 

The Governor claimed that the order helps expand the state’s capacity to “capture storm runoff in wet years by facilitating groundwater recharge projects.” 

“It also continues conservation measures and allows the State Water Board to reevaluate requirements for reservoir releases and diversion limitations to maximize water supplies north and south of the Delta while protecting the environment,” Newsom stated. “Additionally, the order directs state agencies to review and provide recommendations on the state’s drought response actions by the end of April, including the possibility of terminating specific emergency provisions that are no longer needed, once there is greater clarity about the hydrologic conditions this year.”

The text of the executive order can be found here.

The executive order was immediately followed by a request from the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) for such a waiver, which admits that cutting Delta outflow will harm the… “survival of juvenile Chinook salmon and steelhead migrating from the Sacramento River basin during February and March 2023 …”  

DWR also admits that their increased pumping will suck baby salmon off their natural migration path and into the interior Delta, what CDFW fishery biologist Frank Fisher over 30 years ago aptly described as the “Black Hole of Death.” The agency admits that “lesser Delta inflow could affect North Delta hydrodynamics, including greater entry into the interior Delta…and reduced through-Delta survival”. 

The reduced river flows “…would coincide with the highest relative abundance of adult winter-run Chinook salmon migrating through the Delta” and “likely overlap with some juvenile fall-run Chinook salmon rearing and migration through the Delta,” the agency stated.

John McManus, President of the Golden State Salmon Association (GSSA), questioned the governor’s action waiving requirements to protect the environment premised on drought concerns, saying it would cause environmental devastation and economic hardship to fishing families.

“Californians saw a very low number of salmon in last year’s returns following years of water management clearly aimed at aiding a handful of wealthy factory farm operators at the expense of the rest of us,” said McManus. “There’s a good chance the tens of thousands of Californians who work in the salmon fishery and related businesses will be out of work this year if the decision is made to close the fishery.”

He asked why Newsom was taking action at this time when there is over 200 percent of the normal snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

“We’ve got 205 percent of the normal snowpack in the Sierras, most of which will flow into the state’s reservoirs. so why is Gavin Newsom telling his water managers to make things worse for every family in California that depends on salmon to make a living?” McManus continued. “Why is Newsom acting to divert more water to a handful of his powerful friends at the expense of the rest of us? Newsom claims he’s using his emergency authority? What emergency is he responding to? The emergency is the disappearance of the salmon a statewide industry revolves around.  We’ve asked repeatedly to share our concerns with the governor; why does he ignore our needs?” 

“The past several years have been horrible for California’s native salmon runs and this spring we were hoping for a reprieve when we might finally see the river flows needed to move baby salmon to the ocean. Now Newsom is stepping in to kill our salmon runs, as well as other wildlife that were hoping to catch a break,” he stated.

Data released from the Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC) on February 14 documents McManus’ assessment of the dire state of salmon populations in the Central Valley, due to decades of water exports to corporate growers like Beverly Hills billionaires Stewart and Lynda Resnick and the Westlands Water Water District and Southern California water agencies, along with poor management of Central Valley dam sand reservoirs.

Under the 2022 regulations, the projected spawning escapement in the Sacramento River Basin was 198,694 hatchery and natural area fall-run Chinook adults. However, only 61,850 hatchery and natural area adult spawners actually returned to the Sacramento River Basin in 2022, according to the PFMC’s Review of 2022 Ocean Salmon Fisheries (Published February 2023).

This was the third lowest return of salmon to the Sacramento watershed in the last 30 years – and is only half of the goal of 122,000 adults set by the council. The recreational fishing season was a bust on the Sacramento, Feather and American rivers as the fish returned to low, lethally warm water conditions.

Fall-run Chinook (SRFC) returns to Sacramento River hatcheries in 2022 totaled 29,138 adults and 3,926 jacks, and escapement to natural areas was 32,712 adults and 3,070 jacks.  

The spawning escapement of winter-run Chinook salmon, an endangered species under both the State and Federal Endangered Species Acts, to the Sacramento River was also dismal. Spawner escapement of these endangered fish in 2022 was estimated to be only 5,561 adults and 477 jacks. By contrast, 117,000 winter Chinook returned to the Sacramento River in 1969. 

In addition, a record low number of endangered winter-run Chinook salmon fry migrated downriver from Redding to Red Bluff on the Sacramento River in 2022, according to  data collected by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) at Red Bluff Diversion Dam.

An estimated 158,764 fry (baby salmon) made it from below Keswick Dam to Red Bluff last year, compared to an average number of 1.3 million winter Chinook salmon. This is the second consecutive year that the service reported alarmingly low numbers of Chinooks:

Escapement of spring-run Chinook to the Sacramento River system in 2022 totaled only 6,245 fish (jacks and adults), with an estimated return of 4,473 to upper Sacramento River tributaries and the remaining 1,772 fish returning to the Feather River Hatchery.

Because of their low population levels, anglers have been prohibited from fishing for winter and spring-run Chinooks for decades as the fish move closer to extinction because of abysmal water management by the state and federal governments. 

“While natural spawning salmon have steadily declined under Governor Newsom, massive almond orchards, one of the most water-intensive crops, have grown by 300,000 acres or 468 square miles.  Average residents have seen their water bills go up and some have lost access to water while the proliferation of new almond orchards remains out of control,” according to McManus.  

Changing the rules that require water released into the Delta’s is “like having a speed limit in a school zone except when you’re in a hurry,” said Jon Rosenfield, science director of the San Francisco Baykeeper, as quoted by Alastair Bland in an article in Cal Matters:

“We’ve got a violation of water quality standards, a petition (by a state and federal agency) to waive those standards, and a governor’s executive order encouraging the board to waive those standards through his executive order,” Rosenfield told Bland.

It is no surprise why Newsom made the decision to issue the executive order at the same time that he continues to promote the Delta Tunnel proposal, Big Ag voluntary agreements and the construction of Sites Reservoir.

Governor was under heavy pressure from powerful agribusiness donors and almond growers like Stewart and Lynda Resnick, owners of the Wonderful Company, to waive environmental laws. The Beverly Hills billionaire power couple have donated a total of $366,800 to Governor Gavin Newsom since 2018, including $250,000 to the campaign to fight the Governor’s recall.

Newsom received a total of $755,198 in donations from agribusiness in the 2018 election cycle, based on the data from That figure includes a combined $116,800 from Stewart and Lynda Resnick and $58,400 from E.J. Gallo, combined with $579,998 in the agriculture donations category.

The Resnicks have also curried favored favor with the Governor and other California politicians by contributing hundreds of millions of dollars to the UC and state university system.

In 2019, the Resnicks announced a $750 million pledge to the California Institute of Technology. The couple claimed the donation is to support “environmental sustainability research.” The pledge is the largest donation in the history of the university and the second-largest contribution to a U.S. academic institution, according to Caltech:  

The Resnicks, nicknamed by activists “the Koch Brothers of California,” have contributed many millions of dollars to candidates from both sides of the political aisle and to proposition campaigns, all while continuing to sell back public water to the public at a huge profit. The Resnicks are considered the largest tree fruit growers in the world. They’ve contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to not only Newsom, but to former governors Jerry Brown and Arnold Schwarzenegger. 

To show opposition to the executive order and DWR’s waiver request, Save California Salmon is urging people to sign an on-line petition — Newson: Respect Tribal Rights & Fish, Rescind Executive Order Suspending Laws  

“This will impact clean water, endangered fish and toxic algae throughout California’s largest estuary and watersheds,” according to the group’s action alert. “The fact is California rewards wasteful water use by agricultural right holders with rights from before 1914 (when native people, people of color and women could not own land), while tightly regulating cities and breaking racial justice promises.”

“Governor Newsom is harming our clean water and wiping out our salmon so corporations can export almonds. And they are doing it without consulting Tribes,” the group concluded.


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