What happens to California’s drought when Trump is president?

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Donald Trump made it clear during the presidential campaign that he thinks there is no drought in California, and that the state has in his words “plenty of water.” And he told farmers at various times that if he were elected president the situation would be corrected quickly. Now that the president elect is getting ready to move into the Oval Office, what kind of impact could he have on the drought and on water policy here in the Golden State? There are times that in this debate it sounds like there is a hidden tap somewhere that just needs to be turned on to if not fix the situation, at least improve it.

Richard Frank, director at the California Environmental Law and Policy Center at UC Davis, has been thinking about these issues. We talked to him about water policy in the Trump era.

KCRW: Are there reserves of water or sources of water that could be tapped into that the state currently isn’t using.

Richard Frank: No, not directly. There’s a finite amount of water that we have in California and unless we go into massive desalination or work on conversation or focus on storm water recovery to a far greater degree there’s simply no new water available.

KCRW: One part of the debate that often gets big headlines is that fresh water is periodically released to protect endangered fish species. How much water is involved there? Would it make a difference to farmers and communities around the state?

Richard: Yes, if we captured every drop of water that falls from the sky, a significant amount that water could be theoretically be made available to human uses, including agriculture, but it would have profound negative impacts on the states environment- wildlife species, and a variety of of collateral negative impacts such as impacts on tourism and on ecotourism and such matters. California has already lost 90 percent of its historic wetlands, 95 percent of its coastal wetlands, diverting water for human uses and not using a portion for wetlands and other environmental sources would be absolutely devastating.

KCRW: My understanding is that some of these water releases are also to keep saltwater from coming into and contaminating fresh water supply that are for farms and other urban areas. Is that correct?

RF: That’s exactly right. In the Sacramento–San Joaquin delta for example, you have a mixed environment of freshwater and saltwater so you get brackish water supplies, but as long as the salinity is kept down, delta area farmers can earn a living and grow crops. There’s about a quarter of a million people who live in the delta now, and the livelihood of many people would be eliminated if freshwater that currently feeds the delta were eliminated and that the delta were converted into a saltwater area where crops could not be grown and a lot of the current economic uses of the delta could not be sustained.

KCRW: What are the most significant ways that our presidential administration could affect water policy in California?

RF: Now that we have a Republican president with a Republican-controlled Congress, various changes to bedrock environmental laws could be made to The Endangered Species to The Clean Water Act that could have a profound effect on California and other parts of the American West water Policy.

KCRW: Do you have a sense of what might be the first steps of the Trump administration when it comes to water policy and the drought?

RF: There have been various bills pending in the United States Congress to provide so called drought relief for California Agriculture. With the Obama administration providing a check on that effort those drought relief bills have not passed so far. A number of those bills include creating exemptions from the Endangered Species Act to permit more water deliveries for California Agriculture. I would think that would be the first step or among the very first steps that the incoming Trump Administration allied with the Republican-controlled Congress would say.

KCRW: How much say does California have when it comes to how water is used in the state? Are there state laws that take precedence over federal ones, places where California has the final say on the issue?

RF: California and other states control the allocation of water within their respective jurisdiction. But at the same time a number of the plumbing system parts that have existed in California for over a half a century are owned and administered by the federal government.

KCRW: So we’re talking things like viaducts and so on?

RF: Yeah, the Central Valley Project, which is a substantial system of dams, reservoirs and viaducts to store and transport water around the state. So how the federal government manages that system and controls it has an enormous impact on California water and how it’s distributed.

KCRW: So are there situations where you could envision the governor’s office standing up to the federal government and saying, “No, we won’t let you do this!”

RF: I would be very surprised if there are not a number of legal and policy conflicts between the Trump Administration and here in California Governor Jerry Brown’s administration. We have a state and federal Endangered Species Act that affects and limits water allocation. I think that’s one looming area. The drought relief legislation that is currently pending, and any efforts by the federal government to supersede the state’s system of allocating scarce water supplies is likely to met with substantial opposition from the state of California and the Jerry Brown Administration.