Today, the state and federal governments, environmental groups, farmers, and a wide array of water contractors agreed to a settlement that will protect delta smelt from the destructive effects of the massive water pumps in the Bay Delta through June of this year. This Settlement upholds the scientifically justified protections in the biological opinion, including pumping limits and limits on how many fish can be killed by the water projects. The Settlement also allows, but does not require, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to conduct a limited scientific experiment to allow more pumping, if and when the best available science shows that additional pumping would not harm imperiled fish and its critical habitat in the Delta. However, the Settlement does not guarantee any increase in pumping from the Delta, and it continues to ensure the use of the best available science to make decisions on water exports from the Delta.
NRDC is pleased to join the other parties in agreeing to this Settlement, which maintains the essential protections in the biological opinion. Federal, state and independent biologists have repeatedly affirmed that the pumping limits in the biological opinion are necessary to protect endangered species and the Bay-Delta estuary. Federal biologists reiterated this finding as recently as last week, corroborating the previous scientific conclusions of the California Department of Fish and Game, State Water Resources Control Board, and the California Department of Water Resources. Many of those reviews suggest that restoring the health of the Bay-Delta will require protections that are stronger than those in the current biological opinions.
The bottom line here is that populations of many fish species in the San Francisco Bay-Delta, the largest estuary on the West Coast, are at or near all-time lows and at significant risk of extinction. Protections for these species will also help protect California’s salmon fishery and the thousands of jobs dependent on it. Given the current state of the science and the status of the species, a cautious approach should be taken to designing any experiment that temporarily increases pumping.
We have joined in the legal defense of the biological opinion because we strongly believe that management decisions in the Bay-Delta must be guided by the best available science, and not by the prevailing political winds of the day. The Fish & Wildlife Service has the scientific expertise to protect endangered species and restore the Bay-Delta ecosystem, if we simply let the biologists do the job that the law commands. This Settlement vests that discretion with the Service’s biologists and we look forward to reviewing their experimental design and ongoing efforts to advance our scientific understanding of this threatened and complex system. Adherence to the science is not only critical today, but it is also essential to California’s ability to make progress on long term solutions in the Bay-Delta estuary and ensuring a reliable water supply for California’s residents and economy. We believe that this Settlement marks a modest step forward in resolving California’s water wars.