“Jared Huffman, a California Democratic congressman who sits on the House natural resources committee, which oversees the Fish and Wildlife Service, called some of the revelations “blatantly illegal” and “textbook illegal”.
“Gone were the warnings that salmon and whales would suffer. The new version, finalized in the fall of 2019, loosened the rules to free up more water deliveries to farmers, as Trump had demanded.”
Exclusive: Although scientists recommended otherwise, Trump officials favored political allies over endangered wildlife, internal emails show
People fish in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta’s Elk Slough near Courtland, California. Photograph: Rich Pedroncelli/AP
Federal scientists and regulators repeatedly complained they were sidelined by Donald Trump’s administration when they warned of risks to wildlife posed by a California water management plan, according to newly unveiled documents.
The plan, finalized in late 2019, favored the former president’s political allies – farmers upset with environmental protections that kept them from receiving more irrigation water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the hub of California’s water network.
A top California fisheries regulator questioned whether officials with the Trump administration were violating her agency’s “scientific integrity” policy and warned her boss that the administration’s methodology “definitely raises a flag”. A scientist said he feared “the pendulum was always going to swing in the favor of political decisions”. Another vowed to stand up for science even if “someone tries to bury it”.
These blunt exchanges are among 350 pages of emails, memos and meeting notes filed in federal court in Sacramento by California officials in December that provide evidence of political meddling in federal environmental regulation in California. They are part of a lawsuit from the state to overturn the Trump administration’s rewrite of rules for how California’s increasingly scarce water supplies are shared. The plan now could be overturned by the courts or by a review launched by President Joe Biden.
Jared Huffman, a California Democratic congressman who sits on the House natural resources committee, which oversees the Fish and Wildlife Service, called some of the revelations “blatantly illegal” and “textbook illegal”.
“Frankly we all knew they were going to find a way to do this. The surprising part is that they were so overt and ham-handed about it,” Huffman said.
Trump promised to deliver
At issue was the federal plan to divide water between the state’s Central Valley farmers and its river ecosystems, which support fish protected by endangered species laws. Under law, the US government is supposed to rely on a trove of scientific data to strike a balance between the two. But in this case, a federal official urged scientists to help green-light bigger water deliveries to agriculture.
California’s water problems are increasingly the norm across the American west, where communities from Idaho to Arizona are grappling with persistent and worsening drought conditions. The allotment of this shrinking supply of water is becoming a political question of existential importance for thirsty industries, imperiled wildlife and urban dwellers who some day could be forced into rationing.
In 2016, Trump promised farmers at a Fresno campaign rally he would “solve your water problem” and stop environmentalists from “taking the water and shoving it out to sea”. Two years later, he issued an executive order that called for “maximizing water supply deliveries” to farmers.
The state’s two most important rivers, the Sacramento and San Joaquin, converge into an enormous freshwater estuary. Much of the water is allowed to flow to the Pacific, but giant pumps operated by the state and the federal government’s Central Valley Project siphon a significant portion and ship it to farms in the San Joaquin Valley and more than 20 million southern Californians and Silicon Valley residents.
Powerful agricultural groups have seen their deliveries curtailed over the decades to protect fish. They brought their concerns to Trump, and he turned to David Bernhardt, the head of the interior department and a former lobbyist for the Westlands Water District, an influential farm-irrigation district in the San Joaquin Valley.
Federal agency scientists are required under federal law to review any changes to how the Central Valley’s water delivery system is managed to ensure no further harm comes to the species.
Scientists say shipping more water to the Central Valley over the years has contributed to the decline of the delta ecosystem and brought smelt, Chinook salmon and other species to the brink of extinction. The pumps are so powerful that they can reverse the river flows within the estuary, diverting migratory fish into the paths of predatory fish and the pumps themselves.
In the spring of 2019, a few months after Trump issued his order to maximize water deliveries, federal scientists were rushing to complete the legally required study of how Trump’s plan would affect endangered fish that live and migrate through the delta’s fragile estuary. They had to decide whether to issue a species “jeopardy opinion”, meaning the fish’s continued existence would have been jeopardized by the Trump plan. That could have thwarted the effort to move more water to farmers.
Paul Souza, a regional director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service who is still in his position under the Biden administration, didn’t want that to happen. In the May 2019 meeting, Souza told his colleagues that the “goal” of their reviews was “no J”, a reference to a jeopardy opinion, according to the meeting notes. “That is the objective,” Souza said, “and the schedule does not allow time for a J.”
“No one,” he added later in the meeting, “would ask anyone in this room to do something that lacks in integrity.”
Regulators and scientists push back
Two weeks after that meeting, Maria Rea, a senior policy adviser with the National Marine Fisheries Service in Sacramento, sent her boss an email complaining that the interior department was halting her from sending scientific data out for peer review, a common practice among scientists. That “definitely raises a flag with respect to scientific integrity”, she wrote.
A month later, Cathy Marcinkevage, an agency branch chief, sent her colleagues a link to a news story about a federal scientist being forbidden from testifying before Congress about climate change. Marcinkevage wrote that the story left her with a familiar feeling, but she vowed to “do the right thing” even if “someone else tries to bury” her work.
On 1 July, the scientists issued their report, saying the Trump water plan would hurt endangered and threatened Chinook salmon and steelhead, as well as endangered killer whales that depend on the fish for their food supply.
Independently, the fisheries biologist Howard Brown wrote a five-page memo arguing that his team had delivered an honest, scientifically based conclusion in spite of political interference.
“From the beginning of this consultation it was clear to me that the pendulum was always going to swing in the favor of political decisions,” he wrote.
Two days after the report, the Trump administration directed a “strike team” to rewrite the scientists’ findings.
Gone were the warnings that salmon and whales would suffer. The new version, finalized in the fall of 2019, loosened the rules to free up more water deliveries to farmers, as Trump had demanded.
Critics say Souza, in encouraging his colleagues to approve the administration’s plan by pursuing a pre-ordained outcome during their environmental review, may have violated the Endangered Species Act.
Dan Rohlf, an endangered species law expert and professor at Lewis and Clark Law School in Oregon, said Souza’s actions might also have violated federal procedural rules. During environmental reviews, federal agencies are supposed to “start with facts, go through an analysis, then reach a conclusion”, he said. What happened here was basically the opposite, he said.
Doug Obegi, a water attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council – which is challenging the Trump decisions – called the process revealed by the records “incredibly disturbing”.
Souza insisted in October 2019 there had been no political interference. The final decision, he told reporters in a conference call, was the product of “career conservation professionals”.
The Biden administration’s interior department and the National Marine Fisheries Service declined to comment, citing the pending litigation. The US Fish and Wildlife Service declined an interview request on Souza’s behalf.