3/21/10: NRC Panel Upholds Endangered Species Protections

The verdict is in, and the endangered fish species of the Bay-Delta estuary can “breathe” a sigh of relief. The federal government’s efforts to control the impacts of high export pumping and reduced flows in the Delta are scientifically valid, according to a long-awaited study from the National Research Council (NRC).
On March 19, a panel of scientific experts convened by the NRC to review federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections for delta smelt, Chinook salmon, steelhead and sturgeon issued their initial report. Contrary to the hopes of San Joaquin Valley growers and Southern California districts that export millions of acre-feet of water from the Delta, the panel found that actions to reduce exports and increase flows were scientifically justified, and identified no short-term measures that would provide equal protection for listed species while reducing restrictions on water diversions.
Specifically, the panel concluded that:
  • Actions to reduce exports and increase San Joaquin River flows, in order to reduce mortality of smelt and salmon smolts in the south Delta, have a strong scientific foundation.
  • Additional monitoring and research is needed to improve our understanding of when these actions should be triggered – in other words, evaluating the benefits of implementing the actions over time should tell us whether more or less water is needed to prevent jeopardy to listed species.
  • These actions cannot be expected to reverse or even slow population declines immediately, because of the record low abundance of listed species and other factors.
  • Restoring tidal wetlands for delta smelt is a questionable action, because the relationship between the productivity of wetlands and food availability for smelt is poorly understood – a strong rebuke to those who propose to substitute physical habitat for flow restoration in new plans for managing the Delta.
  • There is no scientific basis for replacing the ESA protections with alternative actions proposed by water users, such as barriers, habitat restoration, or predation control, which are insufficiently documented or evaluated.
  • The impacts of other stressors such as contaminants, introduced species, altered nutrient loads, and hatchery operations could be large but are poorly understood.
The NRC Committee on Sustainable Water and Environmental Management in the California Bay-Delta was established last year at the urging of Sen. Dianne Feinstein who questioned the scientific basis for the “reasonable and prudent alternatives” (RPAs) contained in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s 2008 biological opinion (BO) for delta smelt and the National Marine Fisheries Service’s 2009 BO for Chinook salmon, steelhead, and green sturgeon. The two new BOs were issued after the federal courts ruled in favor of The Bay Institute and other challengers that the previous BOs were inadequate to prevent jeopardy to the listed species. The panel invited The Bay Institute’s Executive Director and Chief Scientist Dr. Christina Swanson to provide a briefing on the ESA protections at its field hearings in January. A second report will be issued in 2011.
Since their adoption, the BOs have been under constant attack by water users and politicians. State and federal water project contractors have filed numerous lawsuits to overturn the new protections; San Joaquin Valley Congressman Devin Nunes and South Carolina Senator Jim De Mint have unsuccessfully tried to exempt the Bay-Delta system from the ESA; and even Senator Feinstein recently proposed to waive ESA protections for two years, although she later abandoned the idea in the face of statewide opposition and successful efforts to identify additional water supplies that do not involve Delta export pumping.