Trump touts campaign promise fulfilled for California farmers in decision to divert water

Critics said the change could threaten sensitive ecosystems.

February 19, 2020, 7:55 PM

President Donald Trump on Wednesday touted his administration's efforts to divert more water to farmers in California, raising concerns among environmental advocates about the impact on at-risk ecosystems in the state.

The move also highlights a campaign promise to farmers that he'd lift environmental regulations he deemed "overly burdensome" and, specifically in California, make water more available for agriculture.

"After decades of failure and delays in ensuring critical water access for the people of this state, we are determined to finally get your problem solved," Trump told a crowd of farmers and other groups in Bakersfield, calling the state's previous water policy a "disgrace."

"As a candidate for president," Trump added, "I promised to help the water crisis crippling our farmers due the chronic mismanagement and misguided policies."

Trump has formally approved an Interior Department decision that would allow more water in California's Central Valley region to be diverted to farmers.

The federally managed project has been a point of contention between farmers and conservationists, the latter group maintaining that diverting too much water could damage ecosystems, including for a tiny endangered fish called the delta smelt, a crucial food source for other species such as salmon. Farmers said the water helps protect their crops during droughts.

State and federal agencies have been at odds over a scientific decision released under the Trump administration that found more water could be diverted with less risk to the fish populations and California Gov. Gavin Newsom has proposed his own plan to set aside water to protect fish populations and provide water for farmers. California is expected to file legal action to challenge the Trump administration's actions approved on Wednesday.

"Our goal continues to be to realize enforceable voluntary agreements that provide the best immediate protection for Delta species, reliable and safe drinking water, and dependable water sources for our farmers for economic prosperity," Newsom said in a statement.

Before signing the decisions, Trump told an audience of farmers and other stakeholders that "hopefully the governor will get his act together."

PHOTO: President Donald Trump signs a memorandum after delivering remarks to Rural Stakeholders on California Water Accessibility in Bakersfield, California, Feb. 19, 2020.
President Donald Trump signs a memorandum after delivering remarks to Rural Stakeholders on California Water Accessibility in Bakersfield, California, Feb. 19, 2020.
Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

But critics have said the documents the president has now approved have found different results than opinions under other administrations.

"Making that permanent is potentially a death warrant for the larger Bay delta ecosystem," John Buse, senior counsel for the Center for Biological Diversity told ABC News, calling it a "total abdication" of the government's conservation responsibilities. "The president on previous campaign trips has made fun of the delta smelt, but it's really a larger ecosystem-wide collapse that we're talking about."

The Center for Biological Diversity and other environmental groups have filed legal challenges to the decision to allow the project to move forward.

PHOTO: Then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a rally in Fresno on May 27, 2016 in Fresno, Calif.
Then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a rally in Fresno on May 27, 2016 in Fresno, Calif.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images, FILE

The move could also bring back questions about the appearance of a conflict of interest with Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, whose former client will get the bulk of the water contracts under this new plan. Interior said ethics officers have cleared Bernhardt of any wrongdoing.

The president previously weighed in on the contentious issue of water management in California during wildfire season, criticizing the state's Democratic leaders for how they managed water, which Trump inaccurately said could have been used to put out fires.

Trump's remarks Wednesday night made a subtle dig at Newsom and other California Democrats.

"A lot of people speak badly of your state," Trump said. "I love your state. I understand your state. You have the potential like no place else but you need the right government, you need the right governor."

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