Drought legislation would undermine endangered species protection

Pub date June 10, 2014

By Mike Lynes

OPINION California’s ongoing drought has brought hardship to nearly every corner of the state, but the Central Valley has been ground zero. Communities are struggling just to fill their taps, farmers are letting fields go unplanted, and dry conditions are decimating habitat for birds and other wildlife.

Clearly, our elected leaders need to pull together, put aside political agendas, and take steps to minimize harm from the drought by improving how we manage our water in California. Sadly, some have chosen to exploit the crisis for political points rather than find reasonable solutions.

As you read this, negotiations are just getting started between backers of drought relief bills from both the House of Representatives and the Senate. These will be difficult negotiations, as each piece of legislation contains an entirely different vision of a future California. We can only hope that common sense prevails.

Earlier this year, several members of the House of Representatives descended on the Central Valley for a series of press conferences at which they blamed the water shortages on environmental protections that placed fish before farmers and habitat before crops. They then returned to Washington and passed a drought relief bill, authored by Rep. David Valadao [R-CA21], which would override the Endangered Species Act, suspend the San Joaquin River Restoration efforts, and divert critically important water from the 19 Central Valley wildlife refuges.

Efforts like endangered species protection, water for the wildlife refuges, and the San Joaquin River Restoration settlement became necessary only after decades of habitat destruction due to water diversions that resulted in the loss of more than 90 percent of the Central Valley’s wetlands and riparian habitats. The changes in California’s water system to benefit cities and farms has resulted in population declines in more than 80 percent of California’s native fish species while migratory shorebirds and waterfowl populations have also endured significant declines.

Drought legislation should not make it even harder to hold on to our last remnants of habitat.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein has proposed legislation for drought relief without gutting environmental protections. While the version of Feinstein’s bill that recently passed the Senate no longer has provisions to actively help birds and habitat that it initially had, it nonetheless preserves several essential environmental protections.

Some in the House are vowing to ensure that any drought legislation will include Valadao’s provisions to gut the Endangered Species Act and disregard management of wildlife and habitat. This effort is really just the same they have made for years under the guise of “drought relief.” It’s cynical opportunism to serve a particular special interest. If successful, this policy shift will have long-term negative impacts without providing any real relief to farmers.

We are already seeing the biological impacts of the drought. Just last week, a report from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife showed a 20 percent decline in the number of breeding mallards over last year. While the survey showed that the total number of breeding ducks was only slightly slower — 448,750, compared to 451,300 last year — this year’s number is nonetheless 23 percent below the long-term average. Department officials cited the degradation of Central Valley habitat due to the ongoing drought as the cause. We’ve seen similar declines in breeding efforts in other birds as well, including pelicans, hawks, and owls.

Hardship due to the drought hasn’t been caused by the Endangered Species Act or the small amounts of water that go to Central Valley wildlife refuges. It’s been caused by an inadequate water infrastructure, decades of poor management worsened by California’s byzantine water laws and policies, and, of course, Mother Nature herself.

The smarter way forward is for the House to adopt Feinstein’s bill without playing political games with the Endangered Species Act, Central Valley wildlife refuges, or the San Joaquin River restoration.

The House’s version of drought legislation will only divide the various interests in the Central Valley, pitting one beneficial use against another, at a time when we need unity and sound, sustainable policy.

We hope that Feinstein will hold firm against that House resolution’s supporters.

Mike Lynes is the Public Policy Director for Audubon California