President Donald Trump is jumping into Western water wars on the side of agricultural interests just weeks before the midterm elections, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the plans — a major political gift for GOP incumbents in some of the most competitive House races in the country where water supply is a top campaign topic.
California Republican Jeff Denham, who is facing one of the country’s most competitive races for his Central Valley district, is due to join Trump in Arizona this afternoon for the signing of a presidential memorandum. The memo is expected to be aimed at sending more water to farmers in California's arid Central Valley.
It is Trump's latest foray into California’s long-running water wars and comes as the region has become ground zero for Democrats’ bid to take back control of the House. With his immigration, trade and healthcare policies deeply unpopular in agriculture-heavy regions like the Central Valley, the water move may let GOP incumbents boast about their influence with an administration that supports farmers over environmentalists and city-dwellers.
Denham, whose race is rated a “toss up” by the Cook Political Report, has touted his efforts to secure the region’s water supply in campaign ads and during visits from Trump administration officials including Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, Acting EPA Chief Andrew Wheeler and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue. He is holding a meeting in his district this morning with the political official who oversees the Army Corps of Engineers, an event he will leave early to hop on a plane to meet the president in Arizona.
“The future of the Valley is at stake,” Denham wrote to Trump in a September letter urging his administration to fight the state’s plan.
Denham has tried to block the federal government from operating its canals and reservoirs in coordination of the state plan, and has urged the EPA to review the state’s science supporting the plan.
California Republican Reps. David Valadao and Devin Nunes — who also are facing tough re-election contests — also have pushed for greater water deliveries to the Central Valley.
But aside from offering a political win to California Republicans, it’s unclear how much more the Trump administration can do to affect the amount of water delivered to their constituents.
Operations of dams and canals that make up the Central Valley Project will still have to comply with endangered species laws or be subject to court challenges like the dozens environmental groups have waged in the past. And even if federal changes stand, the state of California could determine that it needs to change the operation of its separate water delivery system to make up for the lost environmental protections — resulting in smaller water deliveries on its end.
In an August memo, Zinke directed his staff to develop a plan for maximizing water flows to the Central Valley. He tasked his deputy, David Bernhardt, with spearheading the plan. Before coming to Interior, Bernhardt was the long-time lobbyist for the powerful Westlands Water District that serves many of the biggest Central Valley agricultural operations.
The Trump administration's Interior Department has already threatened to sue the state over its controversial water plan, and has also told California it wants to renegotiate the 1986 pact governing how the state and the federal government pump water through the ecologically fragile estuary that serves as the state's main water hub — a move that could alter the balance of power between farmers and cities.
Nancy Cook contributed to this report.