AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
California may not be a stronghold for President Trump, but during his campaign, he did make a promise there to give more water to the state's farmers.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: And we're going to solve your water problem. You have a water problem that is so insane. It is so ridiculous.
CORNISH: Now the president's following through on that by speeding up a key decision about water supply. But according to an investigation by member station KQED, that action could undermine the science behind the irrigation plan.
KQED reporter Lauren Sommer joins us now. Hey there, Lauren.
LAUREN SOMMER, BYLINE: Hi.
CORNISH: Explain first why this water decision is so important for California farmers.
SOMMER: Yeah, as most people know, California is a pretty dry state. So to get the fruits and vegetables that we all eat around the country, water has to move hundreds of miles, and a lot of it is controlled by these massive water pumps that are just east of San Francisco Bay.
Now, the problem with these pumps is that they're so powerful, they hurt endangered fish like endangered salmon. So they have to be slowed down certain times of year to protect fish, which actually hurts the water supply for farmers. So now the Trump administration has put out a new proposal to boost the water supply for farmers through these pumps.
CORNISH: And that involves ordering that the timetable for making that decision be sped up, correct?
SOMMER: Yeah, the president put out a memo last fall very specifically about this decision - that it had to happen in 135 days, which is faster than the last time that it happened. And the thing that it really affects is the scientific review by the federal biologists. They have to look at this plan and say, you know, does it hurt endangered fish even more?
And I actually got internal emails from these biologists through the Freedom of Information Act. And they're very concerned that they don't have the staff or the time to do an adequate scientific review because, last time, it took them almost twice as long to really figure this out.
CORNISH: What does the Trump administration say about why this needs to happen so fast?
SOMMER: They're very focused on maximizing the water for farmers. They say they can do this without hurting endangered fish. Now, evaluating that claim this time around will also be tougher because, last time, there was an independent science review. You know, they put it out to a group of outside scientists to actually evaluate it. The public could be involved in that process. This time around, they're saying there's just not enough time to do that with this expedited review that the Trump administration would like.
CORNISH: Now, one other issue is that several of the agencies involved in this decision are overseen by Interior Secretary nominee David Bernhardt. And you report that there are concerns about a conflict of interest for him. How so?
SOMMER: Yeah. Before he came to the Interior Department, he was actually a lobbyist for Westlands Water District, which is this huge agricultural water district in the Central Valley. You know, he was hired to actually attack these environmental rules, the ones that he is kind of now in charge of drafting. And The New York Times has also reported that since he came to the Interior Department, he's actually been personally involved with these rules, even though he was precluded from lobbying on it by federal ethics rules. Now the Department of Interior staff has said that they think that the ethics are OK in this case, but there are outside groups that are already calling for an investigation into this.
CORNISH: Lauren Sommer is with member station KQED and part of NPR's energy and environment team. Thanks for your reporting.
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