The Trump administration is siding with farmers in the fight against regulation of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, according to a memo first reported by the Sacramento Bee.
Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke sent a memo last week calling for "maximizing water supply deliveries" in the Delta region's irrigation districts, pushing back against state regulators' proposed conservation plan and signaling support for farmers protesting Monday in the capitol.
Monday's announcement comes one day before the California State Water Resources Control Board had planned to vote on a proposal restricting agricultural water use to protect wildlife in the Central Valley, which Pacific Standard reported on last month:
The board's proposal would limit water use in three tributaries to the San Joaquin River, which joins with the Sacramento River to feed into the delta, a key California water source and home to endangered species such as the Chinook salmon. There are no legal requirements keeping farmers from draining the Stanislaus, Tuolumne, and Merced Rivers, and, up to this point, the board's oversight has focused on water users downstream: pumping operations in the delta itself.
"From a regulatory standpoint, this is fairly groundbreaking," says Diane Riddle, assistant deputy director of the Division of Water Rights at the State Water Board.
Currently, 80 percent of the Tuolumne and Merced rivers' water is diverted for agriculture and other purposes. The new proposal seeks to limit that, requiring 40 percent of the rivers' flow to remain in the watershed, especially during the salmon's juvenile nursery period, February through June.
Zinke, along with the United States Bureau of Reclamation, has also threatened legal action if the board proceeds with the new regulation, the Bee reports.
"The State of California is now proposing additional unacceptable restrictions that further reduce the Department's ability to deliver water to Federal contractors," Zinke wrote in the memo.
The water board has since postponed its decision, which was set for the meeting on Tuesday.