Nonpartisan Report from Congressional Research Service Busts California Water Myths

Earlier this month, the Congressional Research Service, the nonpartisan research arm of the Congress, quietly released this report to Congress on the effects of drought and the Endangered Species Act on California’s water supply.  The information in this authoritative, unbiased report helps to debunk several of the myths that some Members of Congress and corporate agribusiness interests have perpetuated in their ongoing attempts to overturn critical Endangered Species Act protections for the Bay-Delta estuary and the fishing and farming jobs and communities that depend on its health. 

The data and conclusions in the report confirms what we’ve been saying all along: endangered fish and fallowed fields are both symptoms, not causes, of California’s drought and our State’s water woes.

Here are a handful of the Report’s key conclusions and findings:

  • The vast majority of water supply impacts have been caused by the past three years of drought, despite claims from some that the drought doesn’t exist or is only a “regulatory drought.”  As compared with the record high levels of water exports seen in the early part of the decade, the report acknowledges that pumping restrictions to protect California’s salmon fishery and other native species have had some impact on water exports, but much less than drought.
  • The State’s water rights system and system of water contracts exacerbates the impacts of drought and environmental protections, making the impacts fall disproportionally on some farmers and water districts and making it difficult for farmers to plan how much water they’ll get in any given year.  For instance, in 2009 those farmers with senior water rights received 100 percent of their water supply, while those with more junior rights received only 10 percent or more.  Almost the entire focus of Congress and the media has been on those contractors who only received a 10% allocation, but other farmers and districts – including many in the San Joaquin Valley – received 100 percent of their allocations last year, despite the drought and environmental laws.  Ultimately, I believe it may be time to revisit some of the inequities in these contracts to ensure that everyone has an incentive to conserve and use water wisely, especially during droughts. 
  • Despite the passage of the Central Valley Project Improvement Act (CVPIA) in 1992, the Endangered Species Act, and other state and federal laws to protect the environment, water exports from the Delta have increased since 1992.  This has largely been driven by increased pumping by the State Water Project.  NRDC believes it reflects a failure to enforce these laws and heed the warning signs of the collapse of the Delta estuary. 
  • These environmental laws protect fishing jobs and communities and farmers in the Delta – “the restrictions are imposed largely to protect fish resources integral to the Delta ecosystem and Sacramento River, upon which many north coast fishermen and local communities depend.”  Although “fish versus people” might make a nice sound bite, it ignores the salmon fishing and other jobs and communities that depend on protecting the Delta and our rivers.  The salmon fishery in California and parts of Oregon has been closed the past two years, causing thousands of people to lose their livelihoods and costing hundreds of millions of dollars in economic impacts. 

Despite the past three years of drought and the Endangered Species Act, Californians (and the rest of the world) have enjoyed the bounty that our farms are famous for, but there’s one food item that has been missing from our dinner plates: wild, California salmon.  If corporate agribusiness interests convince Congress to suspend the Endangered Species Act protections for salmon and other fish in order to allow ever more water to be exported from the Delta, and if we don’t restore the health of this magnificent estuary and the rivers that feed it, we may lose the salmon fishery – and the thousands of jobs its supports – forever. 

I hope that this report helps sway some Members of Congress away from narrow efforts to suspend or waive these environmental protections, which could be the final nail in the coffin for the Delta and for California’s (not to mention much of Oregon’s) salmon fishery.  Fishermen and fishing businesses (over 230 signed this letter), Delta farmers, conservation groups, the State of California, and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California are all on record opposing efforts to weaken or suspend the Endangered Species Act. 

Instead of waiving environmental laws, Congress should follow the lead of the State of California, which recently enacted new legislation to strengthen environmental protections in the Delta, to reduce our reliance on water exports from the estuary, and to invest in the Virtual River of smart water resources like water efficiency, water recycling, groundwater cleanup and banking, and low impact development.  Complementing this effort by investing in Delta restoration and alternative water supplies would benefit all Californians, not just a select few in the San Joaquin Valley.

After all, real solutions to California’s water woes may be harder to accomplish than simple demagoguery, but no one grows crops on heated rhetoric alone.