We're All in this Drought Together (Unless Congressman Nunes Sacrifices the Environment First)

Drought is a natural occurrence and a fact of life in California.  And climate change is likely to make the challenges of drought even more difficult.  While we can’t make it rain, we can prepare for drought by investing in a diverse portfolio of water supplies, including conservation, water recycling, groundwater management, and stormwater capture.  

However, while the State and most stakeholders are working together to get through the drought, Congressman Devin Nunes and many of his far right colleagues in the Central Valley are apparently gearing up to reintroduce legislation to overturn the Endangered Species Act, preempt state environmental and water rights law, rescind the San Joaquin River Restoration Program, and generally blame environmental laws for the lack of rain and snow.   Yet in their zeal to stop the restoration of the San Joaquin River and to eliminate protections for salmon and other native fish under the Endangered Species Act, they’ve lost sight of the facts.

Fact: the Endangered Species Act isn’t controlling pumping operations in the Delta, and isn’t likely to significantly reduce water supplies this year. Drought, not environmental laws, is the overwhelming cause of low water allocations across the State.  Indeed, the Fresno Bee reported today that:

Currently, delta pumps that supply water to west-side Valley farmers are working at minimal levels and have been for two months.

The reason, however, is low storage in reservoirs and low river flows, and not because of any environmental regulations to protect threatened delta smelt and endangered salmon populations.

KQED similarly reported over the weekend that drought, not protections for endangered species, are the cause of limited water supplies:

Some water districts blame those environmental regulations for limiting water supplies, but state regulators say in extremely dry years like this one, the rules have little effect. There simply isn’t enough water to pump in the first place.

“It just hasn’t rained,” said Mark Cowin of the Department of Water Resources. “The environmental regulations still control pumping to some degree, but this is really about Mother Nature.”

Fact: Environmental protections in the Delta and our state’s rivers not only protect salmon and other native fish, but they also protect thousands of fishing jobs, protect water quality for farmers in the Delta, and protect drinking water quality.  According to independent economists, the closure of the salmon fishery in 2009 likely caused as many job losses as pumping restrictions under the Endangered Species Act. By working together to conserve water and by making investments in conservation, recycling, and other tools to improve regional self-reliance, we can sustain our economy and environment in the face of this drought.  Weakening our environmental protections in dry years is likely to just worsen conditions for fishermen, Delta farmers – and all of us – down the road.

Fact: Existing environmental protections are already far weaker in dry years, and they allow far more water diversions than scientists recommend to sustain California’s rivers and the Bay-Delta.  California’s rivers and fisheries are already getting hit hard by the drought.  In dry years, existing regulations require lower flows (or in some cases, allowing rivers to completely dry up) and allow greater levels of water diversions (here are some examples of how these environmental regulations are far weaker in drier years).  This is true of the State Water Resources Control Board’s minimum water quality standards in the Bay-Delta, it’s true of protections under the Endangered Species Act, and it’s true of San Joaquin River Restoration Program. 

With current minimal protections for salmon and other native fisheries, we’re already seeing significant impacts: for instance, reduced flows on the American River are dewatering an estimated 10-15% of salmon redds, killing significant numbers of juvenile salmon, and we’re likely to see many more similar tough choices this year.  Indeed, most independent scientific reviews, including that of the National Research Council, have suggested that we need to strengthen environmental protections in the dry years so that we divert less in dry years (one promising approach is to divert less water in dry years and divert more in wet years, known colloquially as the “big gulp / little sip” approach.  And we had record levels of water exports from the Delta during the last wet year, in 2011.). 

Ultimately, none of these facts matter to Congressman Nunes and his colleagues, because they are not trying to solve problems for the benefit of the entire state.  If they were, they’d recognize what policymakers across the spectrum have recognized:  that the best to prepare for drought is by investing in a diverse portfolio of water supply solutions, including conservation, water recycling, groundwater management, and stormwater capture.  There’s always more that we can do to prepare, since we cannot know whether this drought will end later this year, or whether it will last for several more years.  Even the best prepared cities and water districts know that they have to continue to improve water use efficiency and invest in conservation and these other tools, so that they are prepared for the next drought – or next year.

As the Governor has repeatedly noted, none of us can make it rain.  We need to work together to protect California’s economy and environment, rather than trying to pit one against the other.  Too bad that Congressman Nunes and his far right colleagues aren’t listening. 

About the Authors

Doug Obegi

Senior Attorney, Water program

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