Sacramento Bee: A fight with Trump that Gavin Newsom doesn’t want: Why he’s vetoing environmental bill

Sep 16, 2019
In The News

Gov. Gavin Newsom took considerable political heat over the weekend from a pair of unlikely sources — the environmental community and Democratic lawmakers.

Both were angered over his pledge Saturday to veto Senate Bill 1, a proposal that they say would have protected California’s waterways and fish against the Trump administration.

Newsom, who has sparred repeatedly with President Donald Trump and generally sided with environmental interests since taking office in January, said he’ll veto the legislation even though he supports its general principles of keeping California’s air, water and endangered species safe. The bill would have essentially negated every environmental rule proposed by Trump, turning the regulatory clock back to Jan. 19, 2017, the day before he took office.

Environmentalists, however, said California needs every legal resource it can get at a time when the Trump administration is ramping up efforts to weaken environmental standards.

In a matter of days, the federal government is scheduled to release controversial new rules governing the movement of water through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta; the rules are expected to favor the delivery of additional water supplies to farmers in the San Joaquin Valley.

“We know we’re going to need these tools to protect our salmon runs,” said John McManus of the Golden Gate Salmon Association, a group that represents commercial fishermen.

Yet Newsom saw SB 1 as a mortal threat to something he’s been supporting since shortly before he took office: a tentative truce in California’s longstanding water wars.

The truce revolves around the flow of water in and out of the Delta from California’s most important river systems, the Sacramento and San Joaquin.

For years the State Water Resources Control Board, which polices water rights, has been working on an ambitious plan to reallocate the rivers’ supplies, leaving more for fish and less for farms and cities. The water board’s former chairwoman, Felicia Marcus, once said endangered Chinook salmon, Delta smelt were “on the verge of collapse” if something wasn’t done.

Last December, former Gov. Jerry Brown swooped in with a compromise: Cities such as San Francisco, and farms across the Central Valley would cough up some water, although not as much as the water board wanted. The plan also called for $1.7 billion in new spending over 15 years for spawning grounds and other fish habitat improvements, with $800 million coming from farmers and cities.

“This is not a giveaway to agriculture by any means,” said Mike Wade of the California Farm Water Coalition.

But if Newsom had signed SB 1, water agencies — specifically the farm irrigation agencies in the Central Valley — were threatening to pull out of the compromise. They said they were willing to surrender some water — and cash — because Brown’s plan provides more scientific wiggle room in how water is pumped through the Delta to urban Southern California and the farms of the San Joaquin Valley, giving them more water than if the state water board’s more dramatic reallocation scheme were to take effect.

“It represents generational change in how water is managed,” Wade said.

Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, who joined other Valley congressmen and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein in opposing the bill, said the bill would have spawned a new round of litigation over water.

“The governor knows these protracted legal battles don’t tend to move the ball forward. It would have left these groups no choice but to go to court,” Costa said in an interview Monday. “The governor explained that to the speaker and others in Sacramento, but they put him in a bad spot.”

Newsom alluded to the compromise in his statement Saturday, saying SB 1 “limits the state’s ability to rely upon the best available science to protect our environment.” He added that SB1 doesn’t give California “any new authority to push back against the Trump administration’s environmental policies.”

Senate President Toni Atkins, the bill’s author, said she was “strongly disappointed” with the governor’s pending veto. Despite what Newsom argued, she said SB 1 would have stiffened California’s legal backbone against Trump’s efforts to erode environmental regulations.

Environmentalists, who generally don’t like the river compromise, said Newsom got snookered by the threats to pull out of the settlement.

“I don’t believe the water agencies want to leave the voluntary agreement process,” said Kim Delfino of Defenders of Wildlife. “They may have had a fit about it, and walked away for a couple of days,” but would then return to the negotiating table.

The Democratic governor has signaled since taking office that he supports the compromise — and wants to reach out to farmers in the Republican-rich Valley.

In his first State of the State address in February, he announced he was replacing Marcus as chair of the water board with Joaquin Esquivel, whom he said would create more balance between farmers and environmentalists. “We have to get past the old binaries,” Newsom said.

Delfino said the SB 1 veto probably won’t permanently sour the relationship between environmentalists and Newsom.

“We are in agreement with him on so many issues,” she said.