Trump admin weakens California fish protections that Interior chief once lobbied to reduce

Trump admin weakens California fish protections that Interior chief once lobbied to reduce
© Greg Nash

The Trump administration is moving to weaken protections on an imperiled fish population in California’s Central Valley, a shift that Interior Secretary David Bernhardt had previously called for when he lobbied on behalf of farmers.

The Fish and Wildlife Service announced in a biological opinion Monday that the federal government is changing decades-old protections on the delta smelt, a small fish species found in California’s Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta that has for nearly three decades been a source of conflict between farmers and environmentalists. 

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Separately, the agency also issued a biological opinion to lift protections on the chinook salmon, a reversal from findings issued in July and subsequently pulled by the administration.

The changes follow a presidential memorandum issued last October that called for the heads of the Interior and Commerce departments to work together to “minimize unnecessary regulatory burdens” on water projects to better meet demands.

Agency officials called the changes much-needed updates to protections of both species, which allow for a win-win scenario for local residents, the fish and farmers who wish to pump water out of their habitat for irrigation.

“I will say we have worked diligently, as I described, to protect fisheries. We will have more cold water in this action than the last 10 years. By definition, it’s necessary to support winter line spawning. Similarly with delta operations we have crafted a plan that will restrict pumping if there are cause for concern,” said Paul Souza, the regional Fish and Wildlife Service official.

“Our commitment is that we will be as, or more, protective for delta operations than the last 10 years,” Souza said on a call with reporters Tuesday.

Critics fear the new plan, which would allow large quantities of water to be diverted from the San Francisco Bay Delta to the Central Valley in order to irrigate farmland, would ultimately harm the threatened fish species.

The announcement is likely to further raise ethics concerns surrounding Bernhardt, who just before joining the administration lobbied on behalf of a farming group based in California to roll back protections on the delta smelt. Bernhardt is currently under federal investigation over several ethics concerns including complaints that he continued to push the efforts of his former employee, Westlands Water District, to advance policy at the Interior Department.

Agency officials denied the biological opinion issued on delta smelt protections Monday were connected to Bernhardt’s previous employer.

“There is absolutely no connection,” said Souza, adding that he and the others who worked on the issue were “career professionals.”

“We have led these efforts with our team over the past year and these are career professional documentation,” he said.