There has been a lot of news recently surrounding the weakening of federal protections on environmental and water not only in the United States, but specifically in California. The concerns run from loosening the restrictions on endangered Delta fish, to removing protections for sage grouse in the Midwest, to the proposed changes to the definition of “waters of the United States” under the Clean Water Act.
While CalTrout operates primarily in California, our mission takes us into the federal sphere when it affects our work. In light of recent events, here is a little update on how CalTrout thinks about some of the most recent developments.
On November 30th, 2018 Dianne Feinstein, Majority Republican Leader McCarthy, and Governor Brown came out in support of Amendments to the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act (WIIN). The WIIN Act increases available funding for federal and non-federal dams to just over a billion dollars and extends the reach of original WIIN Act, which was at first conceived of and written as an emergency drought provision. Beyond the storage implications which could potentially have positive effects on California’s water security, these proposed amendments would extend for seven years the state and extensive access to Endangered Species Act biological assessments and opinion development on the operations of the Central Valley and State Water Projects. The short of this extension is that this deal would open the door for weakening ESA protections to allow for more water delivery to water users in the Central Valley and southern California.
CalTrout sees this as a backdoor deal aimed at using existing language from a drought emergency bill to allow continued access of water contractors to build the case for impractical storage and water conveyance tools, like the Delta tunnels, while helping bypass the biological assessments needed to analyze the ecological impacts of these projects. Although the most recent news indicates that a short-term budget deal to keep the federal government open for business will not include WIIN Act provisions, CalTrout will continue to monitor this situation and will call on its members to act when appropriate.
Another major battle will be to refute the President’s proposal to narrow the definition of waters of the United States under the Clean Water Act. Given our current president’s executive order in 2017 directing the EPA to take a close look at this definition, it was just a matter of time before he came back to this subject.
Currently the Obama-era definition, modelled on the legendary Supreme Court’s decision, stands as the law of the land when it comes to protections of wetlands and other waterways under the Clean Water Act.
Under the new rule, the Clean Water Act’s purview will only extend to truly navigable water rivers and their tributaries, as well as wetlands that have a direct hydrologic connection. This leaves out the millions of acres of previously protected waterways of diverse habitat throughout the country. In California, the real losses are found in vernal pools, seasonal wetlands and meadows throughout the foothills, rangeland, and some mountainous areas. Reduced protections under the Clean Water Act could clearly have adverse impacts by jeopardizing healthy water for fish and people.
This new ruling will be litigated if adopted and the rule is directly at odds with a seasoned and longstanding Supreme Court decision, which was exactly why Obama sought to encode this definition into law. Although the Court is skewed heavily towards conservative (read non-environmental) viewpoints, the president will be asking the Court to rule directly against somewhat recent precedent. It will be interesting to follow the Court’s ruling, once challenged.
Here at CalTrout we are following the developments in the federal government with watchful eyes and are working with groups of likeminded NGOs to determine when we as Californian’s must act to rebut these ill effects here in California. So far, we remain lucky to be a state whose legislature is committed to pushing back against any slip in federal protections, but it looks like the battles will be heating back up in 2019. Look out for CalTrout’s Trout Clout emails that will act as calls to action for sign-on letters and other ways you can help push back against these anti-environmental actions.