President Donald Trump wants to divert water from California’s freshwater rivers to help nut farmers cope with the state’s increasingly frequent droughts. But orca whales, salmon, and other critically threatened fish could pay the price.
California has been damming its rivers and diverting water to farms and homes for decades. At a campaign rally Wednesday night, Trump announced a new federal plan to pump even more freshwater to the southern half of the state, which will benefit wealthy nut farmers. Environmentalists warn that the move could be catastrophic for vulnerable ecosystems and the fishing jobs that depend on them.
“This is not just a problem of a few fish,” said Jon Rosenfield, a senior scientist with San Francisco Baykeeper. “It’s really an ecosystem collapse that will have rippling effects out into the ocean.”
The plan, which Trump announced to a packed crowd at an aircraft hanger in Bakersfield, involves using enormous pumps to send freshwater from the Sacramento-San Joaquin river Delta south. During the last drought, small farmers there went bankrupt. But those pumps already send water to the San Joaquin Valley, where Trump enjoys broad support. The diversion of water has led to less freshwater flowing into the state’s estuaries, like the San Francisco Bay, where vulnerable species rely on the mixture of fresh and saltwater.
“For too long, authorities have needlessly flushed millions and millions of gallons of fresh, beautiful, clean water from up north straight into the Pacific Ocean,” said Trump, flanked by some of his staunchest allies in Congress. “They think they’re helping the Pacific. It’s like a drop.”
The president has long complained that environmentalists are making a big fuss over a “certain kind of 3-inch fish” — or the Delta smelt. It’s a critically endangered fish that lives only in the San Francisco Bay estuary. To divert more water to farms, Trump is relaxing the fish’s protections under the Endangered Species Act, designed to protect the estimated 1,500 smelt left in the world.
“The Delta smelt is really the canary in the coal mine,” said Doug Obegi, the director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s California river restoration program. “It’s not just about the individual fish. It really is about the broader ecosystem and all the human jobs and communities that depend on a healthy delta.”
If the San Francisco Bay estuary collapses, it won’t just hurt that tiny fish. Fisheries along the coast could collapse, too — so could orca whale populations that feed on salmon, which need healthy rivers to survive.