President Donald Trump on Friday ordered the government to speed up environmental reviews and streamline regulations that he says are hindering work on major water projects in California and other Western states.
Trump signed a memorandum aimed at helping the Central Valley Project and the California State Water Project in California, the Klamath Irrigation Project in Oregon and California and the Columbia River Basin system in the Pacific Northwest.
"We will resolve the issues blocking the completion of the Central Valley project," Trump said in Arizona during a swing through Western states. "I hope you enjoy the water that you're going to have."
The Central Valley Project is a federally managed water storage and delivery system that primarily benefits agricultural users in California's rich farming country in the center of the state.
The State Water Project serves agricultural and urban water users, including Los Angeles and much of sprawling Southern California.
The announcement is a boost for endangered Republican lawmakers in California's Central Valley facing tough challenges from Democrats looking to take control of the U.S. House. Trump signed the memo alongside Central Valley GOP Reps. Kevin McCarthy, Devin Nunes and Jeff Denham.
But it is likely to inflame an ongoing battle in California over divvying up water between cities, farms and environmental needs like the protection of fish.
Farming interests have long pushed to raise Shasta Dam, which holds back California's largest reservoir as part of the Central Valley Project, by more than 18 feet (5.5 meters). The project is opposed by environmentalists who say it would harm threatened fish species and by the Winnemem Wintu tribe, which says it would flood sacred sites.
Several other dams are proposed including Sites Reservoir near Sacramento and Temperance Flat Dam north of Fresno.
A state water board has proposed increasing the amount of water allowed to flow through the Lower San Joaquin River and its tributaries to protect habitat for fish in the delta. The proposal, which is up for consideration next month, has sparked protests from farmers and Central Valley politicians from both parties who call it a "water grab." State officials say the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta east of the San Francisco Bay is an ecosystem in crisis.
"This order stems from ignorance and election year pandering to wealthy Central Valley agribusiness interests," said John Buse, legal director with the Center for Biological Diversity.
Buse said Trump does not understand complex water issues and ignores the need to protect the environment as well as farming and cities.
"Trump's view that water is wasted if not used by agriculture or urban users is just idiotic," he said.
Among other things, Trump's memorandum orders separate federal agencies to consolidate their environmental reviews of California water projects and the Klamath Irrigation Project.
"From our standpoint, it's really encouraging and we feel like we're being listened to," said Dan Keppen, executive director of the Family Farm Alliance in Klamath, Oregon.
Trump also set a 2020 deadline to finish an environmental review underway in the Columbia River Basin.
The president has long promised to boost water deliveries to California farmers, who have struggled to get by with less during years of drought.
"Today's action might be the most significant action taken by a president on Western water issues in my lifetime," said Deputy Interior Secretary David Bernhardt. He said Trump is making good on his promise to take a "more coordinated and thoughtful approach" to managing water while eliminating what he called unneeded burdens.
The memorandum also called for better use of technology in forecasting water supplies and hydropower production, and for exploring desalinization and water recycling.