This month, the San Francisco Bay-Delta ecosystem is facing its most serious threat in a decade, since the populations of already declining Bay-Delta fish species began to crash in 2000. California’s senior U.S. senator, Dianne Feinstein, is proposing to waive federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections – the last line of defense against extinction – for three of the most imperiled species, Chinook salmon, steelhead and delta smelt.
As early as Tuesday, February 23, the U.S. Senate could vote on Feinstein’s proposed rider, the “Emergency Temporary Water Supply Amendment” to the jobs stimulus bill. If passed, that rider would prevent the National Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from implementing restrictions for the next two years on water exports by the federal and state water projects at the massive south Delta pumping plants, which kill up to hundreds of millions of Bay-Delta fish, eggs and larvae each year. Those protections were only put in place over the last year, after the Bay Institute and other environmental organizations successfully sued to invalidate the previous, grossly inadequate federal protections for these species.
Senator Feinstein claims that the new ESA protections are causing major job losses in the San Joaquin Valley, and preventing growers from receiving the 40% of contracted deliveries they say they need to survive.
Senator Feinstein has her facts wrong, and the result could be extinction of one or more species.
The economic situation in the San Joaquin Valley is indeed terrible – but most economists agree that the cause has been the mortgage meltdown and the wider fiscal crisis it triggered, and that the major job losses that resulted have been in the construction industry, not agriculture. Waiving ESA protections won’t help reverse that trend. But it could be the death knell for California’s salmon fishing industry, which has lost tens of thousands of jobs and faces the likelihood of a third year of closure of the ocean fishery, with the commercially important fall Chinook run at a historic low (about 40,000 returning spawners, down from 750,000). It would be a tragic irony if Senator Feinstein’s rider to a jobs bill killed off the salmon fishery instead.
The water supply situation in the San Joaquin Valley is also gloomy – but this is largely the result of three years of drought, compounded by poor water project decisions that drew down reservoirs in the first year of drought. Yet despite the drought and its problems, San Joaquin valley growers have been able to secure between 75% and 100% of their desired supplies, using water transfers and exchanges, groundwater pumping, and other sources. The fact is that water suppliers and users have many options for supplementing supply.
The fish do not have the same options. At times as much as two-thirds of the inflow to the Delta is exported by the state and federal pumps. Only the new restrictions, which limit the amount of reverse flow to the pumps that can occur and which limit how much water can be exported from the Delta in relation to Delta inflow, prevent the loss of a number of species and the march toward extinction of several others.
A dozen members of Congress from California and Oregon have written Senator Feinstein asking her to withdraw her rider. Almost every major newspaper in California – whether in the north, the south or the valley – has come out in opposition to her proposal noted in the San Francisco Chronicle, Sacramento Bee, and other news outlets. Thus far, unfortunately, she has shown no inclination to drop the rider.
Senator Feinstein has sometimes been slow to realize what California’s environment needs, but she has come around on other issues. After stating publicly in the 1990s that there was no chance the San Joaquin River could ever be restored, she wound up sponsoring the legislation that last year authorized the federal program to restore flows and fish to the dried up river that the Bay Institute and others worked for over a 20 year period. We deeply appreciated her leadership on that issue. Unfortunately, this time the endangered fish and ecosystem of the Bay-Delta estuary can’t wait a decade for the Senator to figure it out.
Contact Senator Feinstein’s office and let her know that it is unacceptable to risk extinction of salmon and other species and permanent closure of the salmon fishery by waiving ESA protections, and that there are better ways for San Joaquin valley growers to improve their water supplies. Ask her to withdraw the “Emergency Temporary Water Supply Amendment.”
Senator Feinstein's contact information:
Washington, DC office phone number: (202) 224-3841
Washington, DC office fax number: (202) 228-3954
San Francisco office phone number: (415) 393-0707
San Francisco office fax number: (415) 393-0710