Destroying the Delta Will Not Solve California’s Water Problems

Last year, the State of California passed a sweeping package of water policy reform bills designed to help restore the ailing Bay-Delta ecosystem and help protect a long-term reliable water supply for the state’s growing population.  NRDC supported this package of bills, as did a wide range of other interests including urban water users, most notably the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, and agricultural water users, such as the Westlands Water District.  This legislation is premised on the simple truths that we cannot have a healthy water supply in California without a healthy Bay-Delta ecosystem, which forms the core of our water supply that serves more than 25 million people with drinking water, and we cannot have a healthy Bay-Delta ecosystem without reducing the amount of water that we have been taking out of it and investing in cost-effective alternative water supplies like increased water recycling and stormwater capture and reuse.

Before giving this new state legislation a chance to work, we heard today that the same powerful interests that have been draining the Delta for years are now asking Senator Dianne Feinstein to offer an amendment waiving the very federal Endangered Species Act protections that we’ve gone to court to put in place to protect the Bay-Delta ecosystem.  These protections form the underpinning for cooperative restoration efforts that have been underway for three years.  The Senator should reject this ill-conceived idea out of hand.  It will severely undermine efforts to ensure a stable, long-term water supply and will likely be the death knell for California’s 150-year old salmon fishing industry.  Zeke Grader, head of Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations agrees – here’s what he had to say about this recently.

The Endangered Species Act is one of this country’s bedrock environmental laws: it is the safety net that endangered plants and animals depend on to survive; it’s also a law that recognizes that we depend on a functional, thriving ecosystem for our own well being.  In the Bay-Delta ecosystem, this is most obvious in the connection between the health of the west coast’s salmon fishing industry and maintaining a healthy ecosystem to support those salmon.  The very pumping restrictions that prevent threatened and endangered fish from being sucked into the water project pumps, and that Senator Feinstein has been asked to waive, also allow fall-run salmon to safely migrate through the Delta from their spawning grounds out to sea, and back again.  Those salmon form the backbone of the commercial fishing industry, and provide us all with a local, healthy source of seafood.  The salmon fishery has been closed for the last two years because those fish are faring so poorly, costing the state $279 million and 2,690 jobs in 2009 alone.  If those asking for a waiver of the law have their way, even more of these salmon will be chopped up in the water project pumps and we may never again have a fishing industry or local salmon on our plates in California.   

The Endangered Species Act is also critical to maintaining our nation’s economic edge in innovation, research and technology.  As I previously explained, Congress and the courts have long recognized the economic value of preserving biodiversity:  “pharmaceuticals, agriculture, fishing, hunting, and wildlife tourism … fundamentally depend on a diverse stock of wildlife, and the Endangered Species Act is designed to safeguard that stock.”  Alabama-Tombigbee Rivers Coalition v. Kempthorne, 477 F.3d 1250, 1277 (11th Cir. 2007).  Those urging Senator Feinstein to waive the Endangered Species Act claim that it will benefit California’s agriculture industry.  That view not only ignores the thriving agricultural community in the Delta itself whose survival depends on a healthy Bay-Delta, but it can only be justified for the short-term gain of a few.  Indeed, “[o]f the explosive growth in this nation’s farm production since the 1930s, genetic diversity is responsible ‘for at least one-half of the doubling in yields of rice, soybeans, wheat, and sugarcane, and a three-fold increase in corn and potatoes.”  Id.  Waiving the Endangered Species Act is clearly not good for America’s food production or its agricultural sector.  

In its starkest form, the Endangered Species Act serves as an alarm bell:  if the Bay-Delta ecosystem is so corrupted that it can no longer support native fish, we should be concerned about the ability of the system to keep supplying humans with our water needs far into the future.  The ecosystem collapse in the Bay-Delta has, in fact, served as a warning and prompted a number of efforts to address the problems that threaten our long-term water supply.  Waiving the law is likely to undermine these efforts, setting us back years on the path to addressing our long-term water needs in California. 

We know Senator Feinstein cherishes the natural resources of California – from the desert to the Sierra to the rivers that feed our bays, fields and fisheries.  Overriding one of the fundamental laws that protect these resources is a bad idea - a bad idea for California and a bad idea for the country.  We hope she’ll reject calls to put all this at risk.