Dampening the Rhetoric on California’s water shortage

Here in California, we are currently finishing our third year of drought, putting pressure on all water users and putting endangered fisheries at further threat of extinction. In addition, increasingly polarizing rhetoric from some special interests and politicians is threatening to weaken the Endangered Species Act. A few politicians and industrial agricultural businesses are looking to exploit the area’s economic hardships to attack endangered species and their protections, while ignoring the true sources of the area’s water shortages.

In the recent few weeks we are hearing more and more polarizing rhetoric from California’s San Joaquin valley and in Congress about water shortages. Protect the Valley, a water user group, recently put out an alert asking people to call their members of Congress to support a waiver to the Endangered Species Act. The flyer stated “Thanks to government’s misuse of the Federal Endangered Species Act and two subsequent biological opinions, the vast majority of water that normally flows to California’s west-side central valley farmers has been shut off during the growing season in order to protect a 2” baitfish called the Delta Smelt, and a handful of other marine species.” Nothing could be further from the truth, and statements like this only serve to further polarize communities, and further political agendas.

California has the largest and most elaborate water system in the U.S. highlighted by two major diversion canals, the California aqueduct and the Central Valley project, which moves water from the north to the south. Over the 75+ year period this system has been used, more water has been extracted from the north and diverted from the largest estuary in the western hemisphere, the Sacramento-San Francisco Bay-Delta.

In recent years, partially due to these water diversions, fisheries in California have declined, many of which are now listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Pacific salmon, once prolific here, along with a small Delta-centric fish, the Delta Smelt are now on the verge of extinction. This past year, the federal agencies moved to protect them, issuing biological opinions held that water operations would lead to extinction, and cut backs of diversions at certain times of the year were mandated to protect the remaining small fish populations.

Some have forgotten that the fisheries of California are a valuable resource to our economy. It is a business to thousands in the recreational and commercial fishing industries. Salmon are an important “crop” for most Americans, rich in nutrients and protein. The Endangered Species Act is not only designed to protect species, but also the ecosystems upon which they depend. Without a healthy Sacramento delta fishery, thousands of Californians would loose their jobs. Weakening the Endangered Species Act is not the answer to the water issues in California.

Today, we hear politicians like Representative Nunes of Visalia calling for over-riding the Endangered Species Act in order to get more water to the west side farms. Fact is the ESA biological opinions did reduce slightly water deliveries, but certainly not the “vast majority.” The Department of Interior report, “Reality Check”, dated September 17, 2009, says 1/3 less water is available due to the drought, and that ¼ of the 2009 delivery shortage is related to biological opinion reductions, and 75% is due to the drought. Hence, it is a total fabrication to say “the vast majority” of water shortage is caused by the ESA.

Another cry being heard in newspapers and on the airways is, “turn on the water.” Fox news, several local newspapers, and federal legislators keep calling for the water to be turned on. Well, contrary to the statements that the water is turned off, it was not. Water had been being delivered, just at a lower rate than wanted, and senior water rights holders in the eastern San Joaquin valley were getting 100% of their water. Junior water rights holders were not. That is how the system works! Additionally, on June 30th, full diversions of water began, and the west side actually started getting some water, but you would not have known it from all the noise coming from some politicians.

This is a tough year in California because of the drought, and the fact that much of the state is dry normally. In a state with nearly 37 million people, water demands are high, and frankly, water is over obligated. It will take more than yelling in Congress, Tea Party antics, Fox network’s biased reporting, and political maneuvering to get a limited amount of water to a growing state.

Learn more about the ongoing drought, the collapsing ecosystem, its impact on all Californians and ESC’s work to help restore the Delta here.

By Mark Rockwell, ESC California Representative

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