Trump’s Pledge to ‘Open Up the Water’ for Valley Farms: Easier Said Than Done

While campaigning in the San Joaquin Valley, Donald Trump told farmers and ranchers that he would "open up the water" for them.

While campaigning in the San Joaquin Valley, Donald Trump told farmers and ranchers that he would "open up the water" for them. (Craig Miller/KQED)

President-elect Donald Trump might have trouble living up to one of his more sweeping campaign promises in California.

On the stump in Fresno last May, he made headlines for declaring, “There is no drought” here.

It’s a bit unclear from his remarks whether he was voicing an opinion or simply reporting what some farmers told him at a pre-rally gathering. Either way, he was badly mistaken.

Though conditions have improved over much of the state since then, about 73 percent of California remains in some level drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, and nearly 43 percent is still classified in “extreme” or “exceptional” drought, including much of the San Joaquin Valley.

‘Don’t Even Think About It’

But Trump also made a pledge to the assembled crowd in Fresno.

“We’re gonna solve your water problem,” he told the audience. “We’re gonna get it done and we’re gonna get it done quick. That one’s an easy one. Don’t even think about it.”

It’s unclear how much the candidate had thought about it as his comments displayed a blend of confidence and confusion. He expressed bewilderment at the current water allocation policies, which require that a certain volume of water remain in the rivers to protect the environment.

“You have a water problem that is so insane. And it’s so ridiculous, where they’re taking the water and shoving it out to sea,” he said.

“And I’m asking everybody, why, why, why, and nobody can explain why they do this.”

Actually, a lot of people could’ve explained that. About a thousand of them were gathered in Sacramento this week for the Bay-Delta Science Conference, where scientists and policy makers meet every other year to review the latest research supporting the environmentally fragile Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

“This was more sloganeering than fact, in the middle of the drought,” observed Jeff Mount, a senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California. He says a certain amount of California’s river water must flow to the sea, to keep salt water from creeping in and contaminating both drinking water and farm land — especially during droughts.

“The share that went to the environment during the worst of the drought—2014 and 2015—was vanishingly small,” he recalls.

Uphill Battle

It’s unclear how high California’s water issues will actually rank on the Trump administration’s agenda, though anxiety rose in conservation circles last week when Trump gave a spot on his transition team to Devin Nunes, a San Joaquin Valley Republican congressman and vocal proponent of pumping more Delta water to farms. (Nunes floated a “Turn on the Pumps” bill in 2009 that failed in congress.)

“It will be uphill for [Trump] to make big changes here,” suggests Jay Lund, who heads the Center for Watershed Sciences at UC Davis. Like Mount, he’s a grizzled veteran of California water debates.

“There’s a lot of state law, state regulations that would have to be overcome,” says Lund. “I think pretty much anything that anyone wants to do is gonna get petty thoroughly vetted.”

Mount says an executive order from the White House to suddenly crank up the pumps would violate both state and federal law, beginning with the federal Endangered Species Act, which relies on formal studies known as “biological opinions” to set protections for sensitive habitat.

“He could write it, but it would be illegal,” wrote Mount in an email to KQED. “It would be inconsistent with the biological opinions, and the President cannot unilaterally alter the BOs. The project operators would run the risk of civil (and in a different world) criminal penalties.”

Mount says such an order would also run afoul of the Clean Water Act and California law, though in times of drought, even more fundamental laws apply to the distribution of water.

Campaign promises are one thing, says Mount, but, “Now they have to govern, and the laws of physics apply to everyone equally.”

Trump’s Pledge to ‘Open Up the Water’ for Valley Farms: Easier Said Than Done 18 November,2016Craig Miller
  • Sara

    The State Water Resources Control Board is now updating its 20-year-old Water Quality Control Plan, which controls how much of the water that would naturally flow into the San Francisco-Sacramento Delta is diverted for agricultural use in the west and south San Joaquin
    There will certainly be pressure to divert more. An organization called Save the Delta is seeking less diversion (
    To comment on the Water plan, send an email with your comments attached as a pdf (less than 15
    megabytes) to Subject line: Letter – 2016 Bay-Delta Plan Amendment & SED.

  • Joseph Rizzi

    Simple: 1) Add 1.5 miles of fish screens filtering all water into Clifton Court Forebay (CCF) to eliminate killing of all fish. 2) Connect both export pumps to CCF. 3) Eliminate 2 fish capture and relocation operations for big savings 4) Salinity control add shipping lock at Benicia blocking 1/12 of the water way that is being dredged would create slight delay in shipping but prevent as much as 20% of salt water intrusion into Delta, while leaving 11/12 of the water way open to fish, small boats etc. 5) if more salinity control is needed add tidally controlled louvers between up to 10 of the 12 supports under the Benicia bridge.

    • frog312

      Wow, that is incredibly simple (slight sarcasm noted)….why haven’t we implemented this plan that supposedly solves the salinity issue, but does nothing to improve the crashing delta ecosystem caused in part by excessive water withdrawal?

      • Joseph Rizzi

        People are not or do not want solutions that they did not come up with.

  • Gibarian

    This is incredibly reckless, one-sided, uninformative, and biased reporting in a “Science Report” no less! This article distorts the law, ignores conflicts of interest among academic scientists (who form biological opinions in ways that create more work for them), fails to consider that existing laws can be changed (and should be: if the Endangered Species Act worked, there wouldn’t be any endangered species … think about it), but most importantly does not inform the public about the legal background. This reporter has a slant: “don’t worry, big boogie man Twumpy from New York won’t mess up all the Sciency-poo in your own precious little progressive SanFrancisky where you all know what is right” And this counts as Journalism! Save it for the opinion page.

    There are multiple types of drought (I will cite science here, specifically NOAA) and the important one to focus on is hydrological drought as opposed to precipitation drought. Hydrological drought refers to water in storage. You have to impound water and convey it. If there is sufficient water in storage to meet projected demand and allotments based on senior water rights, there is not a hydrological drought (although the time period is somewhat arbitrary). You can have a precipitation drought without a hydrological drought depending on storage capacity. Case in point: every year, the SFPUC sent a letter to the State Board of Water Resources every June for the past five years affirming it had adequate supply for 3-5 years. Not one page in the SFPUC’s annual report does it ever say it experienced a drought condition. And anyone who says there was never a hydrological drought for the SFPUC’s retail customers is treated like a holocaust denier.

    Maybe the journalist could do the public a favor and provide some context and history. Let’s focus on “valley farms.” Which valley? I’m going to assume the San Joaquin as opposed to the Sacramento valley. But there are some concerns: are we talking about the Eastern San Joaquin or the Western San Joaquin? Are we talking about farmers served by the Central Valley Project of the US Bureau of Reclamation or the State Water Project. What about senior water rights on San Joaquin Rivers (such as the Modesto Turlock irrigation district) Or is it all just glittering generalities that makes the whole state have a drought when, in fact, parts of it do not depending on what definition you choose (such ambiguity!).

    What about the Sites Reservoir or Raising Shasta Dam? Hmmmmmmml…..that doesn’t seem to even be on this Journalist’s mind! Instead of rebuilding some infrastructure, let’s build some. OOOOH….jobs. If you store more water you can use more water because you will be able to meet baseline deliveries during a longer projected period. One benefits the CVP, one benefits the SWP. OOOOHhhhh…a constructive solution. Let’s kill it.

    Mr Lund: what are the state regulations we have to overcome? What are the state laws? The state legislatures just sent 900 bills to the governor. It seems that they know how to do something. Are you talking about CEQA (your bread and butter: all that EIR and consultant fee and expert witness money going to your head now?)

    So: let me explain: a federal judge came in and said a whole bunch of Central Valley Project reservoirs had to flush a-lot of water down the drain. Now: we as a society made a decision in the 1930’s and again in the 1950s that given the limited water resources were were going to put them to use and accept the public benefit and need to outweighed the environmental negatives (sorry smelt: bye bye, you were only a subspecies anyway, someone’s biological opinion…just like the Southern Gnatcatcher…Tinkerbell time…clap and you will believe). The judge didn’t like that and wanted it his own way and ripped up the trade offs, waved his magic gavel, and went: poof! I now pronounce you unentitled to your water entitlement.

    So let’s boil it down: we have a-lot of bad laws that create court standing for activists to sue and hold up projects and rip up old settlements because they now hold a veto (“vetocracy” to quote Francis Fukujama). We just got rid of dams on the Klamath and decided to preserve that as wild and scenic (even though the SWP holds its entitlements and could engage in interbasin transfers…oh, and it’s not navigable, and the middle and south forks are not interstate, so if we actually wanted to follow the constitution we could recognize the Feds have no authority…sorry magic judge and your substantive due process or whatever).

    If we want everyone in California’s to be able to breed, some fishies are going to have to give up a spawning ground or two. They can keep the Smith, Eel, and Klamath, the top level apian carnivores get the rest.


Craig Miller

Craig is KQED's science editor, specializing in weather, climate, water & energy issues, with a little seismology thrown in just to shake things up. Prior to his current position, he launched and led the station's award-winning multimedia project, Climate Watch. Craig is also an accomplished writer/producer of television documentaries, with a focus on natural resource issues.

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