2/26/10: Feinstein Backs off on Waiver of Delta Endangered Species Protections for Now

On Friday, February 26, 2010, California’s senior U.S. senator, Dianne Feinstein, announced that for the time being she would not introduce legislation to waive federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections – the last line of defense against extinction – for three of the San Francisco Bay-Delta estuary’s most imperiled species, Chinook salmon, steelhead, and delta smelt

Instead, she praised the efforts of the U.S. Department of the Interior and other parties, including The Bay Institute, to identify additional south of Delta water supplies to augment deliveries to westside San Joaquin Valley water contractors. Unfortunately, she also held out the threat of bringing the legislation up again if the additional supplies do not materialize.
Sen. Feinstein’s “Emergency Temporary Water Supply Amendment” would have prevented 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. Populations of salmonids and delta smelt, which had been in general decline for decades, began to crash in 2000 as export levels rose to historic highs over the next six years. After the Bay Institute and other environmental organizations successfully sued to invalidate the previous, grossly inadequate federal protections for these species, new pumping restrictions and other requirements were put in place starting last year.
The senator’s proposed amendment may have been motivated by her concern for the terrible economic conditions in the San JoaquinValley but it was remarkably ill conceived. The proposal was severely criticized not only by the Bay Institute but by almost every major newspaper in California (including the San Francisco Chronicle and Sacramento Bee), by a dozen Congressional representatives from Pacific Coast states, and by eighteen Northern California state legislators for placing three native species – and possibly others indirectly benefiting from the ESA protections – at risk of extinction; for being willing to sacrifice jobs in the state’s once thriving commercial salmon fishery for jobs in westside agriculture; for incorrectly blaming San Joaquin Valley unemployment on environmental protections rather than drought, the housing and fiscal crises and other factors; and for failing to recognize the many water management tools westside water districts use every year to supplement deliveries.
This last point was proven when in its February 26 delivery forecast for the Central Valley Project the Interior Department identified up to 200,000 acre-feet of water, over and above this year’s contracted surface water deliveries, that could be made available to westside San Joaquin Valley contractors through water transfers and exchanges, rescheduling of deliveries, reoperation of storage facilities, and shifting exports to the summer months. This number does not include the amount of groundwater that Westside growers will pump throughout the irrigation season, bringing the total water supply to levels well in excess of the 40% of supply that Senator Feinstein identified as her target in relaxing ESA protections. The Natural Resources Defense Council and the Bay Institute worked together to provide Interior with new ideas regarding additional sources of supply.
In contrast to the west side, most other federal contractors throughout the Central Valley are expected to receive 100% of contracted deliveries this year. This fact underscores the larger, ongoing problem for continued federal water service to the western San JoaquinValley. Westside growers export more Delta water and have fewer alternative sources than most other areas, making them at once highly vulnerable to the effects of drought and climate change on the ability to move water from north to south and also making them perhaps the single biggest cause of pumping-related environmental stress for the endangered species and habitats of the Delta. (To make matters even worse, irrigating the selenium-laden soils of the westside has created one of the nation’s most persistent and severe toxic drainage problems.)

In the long-term, according to the new state policy established by the state legislature last fall, Californians must reduce their reliance on the Delta as a water supply source and become locally self-reliant, in order to preserve the Delta as an ecological treasure and to reduce each area’s dependence on imported water. In order to implement this policy, the western San JoaquinValley needs to begin to shift its economic activity to less water-intensive uses, such as renewable energy generation (for instance, siting new solar and wind power projects on the westside’s disturbed agricultural lands rather than pristine areas in the Southern California desert) and dryland farming. To survive, the westside needs to look to the future, not the past.