The Tehama-Colusa Canal transports water to irrigate northern California agriculture and communities.
Department of Water Resources and Fish and Game were using Cal-Fed (bond) funds to backfill their state budget deficits
Before President Donald Trump was elected, on May 27, 2016 he stated at a rally in Fresno, California: “There is no drought…If I win, believe me, we’re going to start opening up the water so that you can have your farmers survive.”
Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times responded on June 6 that Trump was “bloviating,” “oversimplifying a complicated problem” and cautioned that “putting one’s trust in Trump is the wrong place to start.” The national media scoffed at Trump’s seemingly preposterous boast (CNBC, Huffington Post, FactCheck.org, the Daily Beast, etc.).
However, on January 15, 2020, the California Department of Water Resources “with virtually no public notice quietly gave away a significant portion of Southern California’s water to farmers in the Central Valley as part of a deal with the Trump administration in December 2018”.
Trump’s deal will shift 217,000 acre-feet of water to farmers in dry years, which would irrigate about 72,333-acres of row crop land (113-square miles). Over 400,000 acres of land were left unused in the drought of 2014.
This new Trump water “deal” revised a compact dating back to 1986 on the percentage of water the federal and state water systems have to provide in wet and dry years. Even more quietly, this deal accomplished what all California governors since 1986, and powerful U.S. Senator and environmental advocate Diane Feinstein (D-California), could not do: potentially provide more water for farmers and “improve the health of the health of the river system” for fish .
The Deep (Water) State
In 1994 the Cal-Fed Bay-Delta Plan was initiated to reform the 1986 agreement as to the percentage of water the state and federal governments had to provide in wet and dry years. This plan was created by former California Gov. Pete Wilson (R) and former federal Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt (D). But in 34 years it went nowhere despite massive funding for its implementation.
In 2006, the impartial California Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) stated the Cal-Fed Plan had failed because the program had turned into “what looked like a statewide water management program” that was redundant with DWR’s functions. The state had taken over operating the water flows for both federal and state water systems to divert an additional 254,000 acre-feet of water in dry years from farmers and rivers toward Los Angeles. That is enough imported water for about 1 million urban water users for one-half year during a “drought.” Dry years in California are approximately 4 out of every 5 years on average.
So-called drought in California is normal; it is wet years that are abnormal.
In 2005-2006 the California state budget had allocated $324 million to Cal-Fed, of which 38.8 percent went to the Bay-Delta Authority for what never became quite clear; 38.6 percent was spent on “ecosystem restoration,” 10.7 percent on “science,” 2.8 percent on a failed experiment to create an environmental water market by buying water from farmers and diverting it to the environment, water storage 2.7 percent and 2.3 percent went for Cal-Fed program management (see Cal-Fed budget here). 10.6 percent went to “water conveyance”, but that was already a function of the DWR.
The California state budget was suffering a shortfall in 2006, so apparently the Department of Water Resources and Fish and Game were using Cal-Fed (bond) funds to backfill their state budget deficits. The state LAO found that Cal-Fed’s “behind closed doors” approach to financing Cal-Fed “was not a good way to make policy”.
The funding sources for the $324 million Cal-Fed program in 2005-06 were mainly from the $3.4 billion Proposition 50 water bond ($232.7 million), other water bonds ($47.9 million), state water project funds (from farmers – $29.7 million) and the state general fund ($11.5 million).
This mismanagement brought about four independent audits of the Cal-Fed program by the Little Hoover Commission, Department of Finance (2), and private consulting firm KPMG. The Hoover Commission described the Cal-Fed organizational structure as “convoluted” and the LAO found “no one was in charge” of the program. It is little wonder Cal-Fed went nowhere. It essentially functioned as a slush fund and environmental jobs program to divert funding to state agencies, pet projects and extra water to Los Angeles in dry years.
By 2009 the 14-year old Cal-Fed Program was drowning in bureaucracy and was dissolved. Even Zeke Grader, the Director of the Pacific Coast Fishermen’s Associations said “they should put a bullet through its head.” The Bay-Delta Program had failed in restoring fish populations in rivers. Environmentalists attributed the end of the program to when “Republicans toppled the Democratic Congress in the 1994 midterm congressional election and Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America”.
In 2009 the Bay Delta Program was replaced by the new Delta Stewardship Council but restoring at-risk fish was not part of their mission. From 2011 to 2019 Governor Jerry “Moonbeam” Brown was never able to bring about fish restoration or a “Delta-Fix.” The environmentalist “California Water Research” blog states that new Gov. Gavin Newsom’s “Water Resilience Portfolio is shaping up to look a lot like the Cal-Fed Program” in its seeking huge funding outlays for habitat restoration.
Trump’s Confidential “Art of the Deal”
What Trump may have used as a bargaining chip to pull this new water deal off with oppositional California is anyone’s guess. The head of the Restore the Delta nonprofit, Barbara-Barrigan Parilla is quoted by email to TV station KCET: “We have heard rumors for a year that the Department of Water Resources agreed to Trump’s Coordinated Operation Agreement (COA) addendum so that they could secure federal funding for the Delta tunnel.” But this was denied by John Leahigh of DWR.
Of course, this is California, so the water sharing arrangement in the Trump deal is pending a lawsuit by the Fishermen’s Associations over the following water withdrawal percentages: