Sent. Toni Atkins meets with Gov. Gavin Newsom
Sen. Toni Atkins in a meeting with Gov. Gavin Newsom. Courtesy of Atkins’ office

California is facing an unprecedented and reckless assault by the federal government on our water quality, air quality, worker safety, fish and wildlife and public lands.

Existing federal protections in those areas keep California a special place and keep Californians healthy. But those protections are threatened. Our state government is fighting back, but the past two years have revealed where state law must be strengthened.

For decades, state regulators have relied on federal protections for endangered species to meet California’s independent state legal requirement to protect imperiled species like Northern California’s spring run Chinook salmon.

However, the Trump Administration is dramatically weakening federal protections for salmon and other Bay-Delta species.

State agencies deserve credit for launching an independent effort to establish new requirements to protect salmon and comply with existing state law. The problem is that federal agencies plan to ignore those new state requirements in order to deliver more Bay-Delta water to powerful San Joaquin Valley farmers in the Westlands Water District.

This would do more than harm salmon fishermen and the West Coast’s largest estuary.

An elegant solution lies in Senate Bill 1 by Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins of San Diego. That legislation that would strengthen legal requirements that the federally operated Central Valley Project comply with state environmental protections.

Affirming federal compliance with state law would do more than protect our natural resources. It would ensure equitable treatment for all California water users. Strengthening state law requiring the federal Central Valley Project to comply with California law will help protect the State Water Project and Southern California’s water supply.

SB 1 addresses similar threats to air quality, water quality and worker safety.

Terry Tamminen

If it becomes law, state agencies could identify dangerous federal rollbacks and to adopt pre-rollback federal protections immediately.

This authority would not create new requirements. It would simply allow existing federal protections to remain in place while state agencies examine if and how those protections should be tailored to meet California’s needs.

Without this law, state agencies will be at risk of being overwhelmed by a tsunami of scientifically baseless federal rollbacks. And state residents and natural resources are at risk from a gap in protections that could last years, if state agencies are forced to respond to federal rollbacks on a case-by-case basis.

A second measure, Senate Bill 307 by Sen. Richard Roth, a Democrat from Riverside, is a narrower effort to protect groundwater and precious, life-giving springs in the Mojave Desert from reckless groundwater mining.

Unsustainable groundwater pumping in the Central Valley has had disastrous impacts on ecosystems, water quality and water supply. Senate Bill would give state agencies a new tool to prevent similar disasters from being created on important public lands, including the Mojave National Preserve. This bill would protect desert bighorn sheep and other wildlife, and communities that might unknowingly invest in an unsustainable water source.

The last thing California needs is new development built on the promise of a water source that proves to be unreliable.

The U.S. Department of the Interior has cleared the way for Cadiz Inc.’s groundwater mining project by sweeping aside a past decision that would have required this unsustainable project to undergo federal environmental review before it could build its pipeline on federal lands.

SB 307 would ensure that such unsustainable water schemes don’t threaten the environment and the communities that would rely on them.

All Californians have a stake in strengthening state law to protect our natural heritage, health and water supplies. Senate Bills 1 and 307 are important steps forward to protect California and Californians and ensure that our state remains an environmental leader.

Terry Tamminen was California Environmental Protection Agency secretary under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, and is chief executive officer of the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation. He wrote this commentary for CALmatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters.