Dry riverbed, © NOAA

California Drought Legislation Must Strike a Balance To Protect Fish and Wildlife, Too

Historic CA drought has impacts on all walks of people and wildlife; fish and fishing communities hit hardest

Earlier this month, President Obama visited California’s Central Valley for the first time. Unfortunately, he did not visit to celebrate a new achievement; he came to discuss California’s historic drought and to offer some help. California is currently experiencing the worst water crisis in the state’s modern history, with three consecutive years of extremely dry weather. Although a recent storm – the first of this year’s wet season – provided some relief, California still has a long, long way to go to get back to normal. To put this in historical perspective, February 2012 – January 2014 marked the driest such 24-month period on record.


Drought conditions as of Dec. 2013 (Photo: NOAA)

What does this drought mean for California?  For people, it means less water for our cities, industry and agriculture. This is serious business. There are 17 communities in California with fewer than 100 days of drinking water left. And, for ranchers, this drought has meant that some family ranches have had to sell some or all of their herds because they do not have the means to feed them due to the lack of forage and the high cost of hay.

For California’s fish and wildlife, the drought will be deadly. Migratory birds, which fly between South America and Canada and Alaska, have fewer and fewer wet places to stop over to rest and feed. California has lost 90% of its wetlands to development already – even before the drought – and now with the lack of water, it appears that the federal water project that supplies critical water to our wildlife refuges may deliver only a fraction of what is normally promised. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists are speculating that the refuges may receive less than 40% of their water supply. This dramatic decrease in the water supply will force refuges to pump groundwater – that is, if they have it and if they can afford to pump it. Even then, whatever available groundwater there is – and what is, is often of very poor quality – won’t be enough. And, those birds that fly over California will have even fewer places to stop along the path of their already daunting journey. The result will be decreased breeding capabilities due to lack of food and poor health, and an increase in disease and death as birds crowd together in the remnant wetlands.

If you are a fish, this drought is even more deadly. For the first time, California’s Fish and Game Commission, the agency in charge of setting fishing regulations, has closed a number of rivers and streams to fishing in order to give beleaguered salmon and steelhead populations a chance to survive. For example, parts of the American and Russian Rivers and coastal streams along San Mateo, Santa Cruz, Monterey and San Luis Obispo counties are closed to all recreational fishing. California’s fish have endured tremendous impacts during the last 100 years due to the building of dams, diversion of streams, pollution, invasive species and many other human-caused problems.  For the Bay-Delta region, the state has diverted so much water each year that the system is in perpetual drought even in a normal rain year. However, this year the stress on the system is compounded by the unprecedented dry conditions.

Chinook Salmon, © Dave Bickford

Threatened Chinook Salmon

Indeed, California’s storied salmon runs are at real risk. According to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, Central Coast coho salmon could become extinct south of the Golden Gate. All of the creeks between the Golden Gate and Monterey Bay are blocked by sandbars because of lack of rain, making it impossible for salmon to get to their native streams and breed. If critically endangered salmon do not get to their range to spawn this year, they could go extinct.

This possible collapse of the salmon fishery is bad news for salmon fishermen and North Coast communities. California’s salmon industry is valued at $1.4 billion in economic activity annually and about half that much in economic activity and jobs in Oregon. The industry employs tens of thousands of people from Santa Barbara to northern Oregon.

When President Obama flew to Fresno, California, accompanied by California’s Senators Diane Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, his visit was focused on the agricultural communities in the Central Valley. In a good initial step, the President announced more than $180 million in aid to small communities suffering from a lack of drinking water and from unemployment due to this year’s decrease in farming, as well as funding for the hard-hit ranching community. However, the President’s trip and his proposed aid package failed to bring assistance for our equally-suffering fish and wildlife populations and fishing communities. Hopefully this oversight is short-term and the Obama Administration will also look to provide aid to these other hard-hit resources and communities.

While it would have been nice to have seen the President tour the fragile and recovering  San Joaquin River and talk to some of the fishing and tribal communities also impacted from this drought, his Administration is at least making a real effort at directing help in a constructive and useful manner. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Representative David Valadao (R-CA) and House Republican leadership. On January 23, 2014, Rep. Valadao, Speaker Boehner (R-OH), and other Republicans held a press conference in California in which they unveiled so-called emergency drought legislation intended to override the Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections for the Bay-Delta and shut down the San Joaquin River Restoration Act.  The bill, H.R. 3964, the “Sacramento-San Joaquin Valley Emergency Water Delivery Act,” provides no real solutions and would produce no additional water for the farmers in the western side of the San Joaquin Valley.  Instead, this bill is simply political opportunism aimed at scapegoating environmental laws and endangered fish. Unfortunately, this bill narrowly passed the House of Representatives.

Migratory birds, © Jen Bullock

Migratory birds

If Congress wanted to look for real solutions, they didn’t need to look far. California Governor Jerry Brown had already released a State Water Action Plan this year and recently issued a Drought Declaration in which he directed his Administration to look at short-term and long-term solutions for California’s water woes, including proposed funding in the state budget for increased water conservation, water recycling, storm water reuse, and other programs that reduce demand by both urban and agricultural users.

California’s Senators Diane Feinstein and Barbara Boxer also appear to be focused on finding solutions that will address the impacts from the drought and unify California. In early February, California’s two senators joined with Senators Wyden and Merkley from Oregon to introduce a bill designed “to help California and Oregon farmers, businesses and communities suffering from historic drought conditions.” The bill includes a range of provisions that require federal agencies to use existing powers to maximize water supplies, reduce project review times and ensure water is directed to users whose need is greatest. The bill also provides $300 million in emergency funds to be used on a range of projects to maximize water supplies for farmers, consumers and municipalities and provide economic assistance.

Dry riverbed,  © NOAA

The drought is so severe that many of California’s riverbeds are completely dry.

While the Senators have stated that it is their intent that this bill provides aid to those who need it the most while not undermining current environmental rules – and we agree that this is the right approach to take – the bill, in its current form, does have a few provisions that need to be clarified to avoid any unintended consequences on fish and wildlife. First, there are two provisions in the bill that seem inconsistent with some of the current endangered species rules (found in what are known as “biological opinions”) for endangered salmon, steelhead, and sturgeon. These rules are important because they give the federal biologists some flexibility in determining the minimum protections necessary during drought conditions and how the federal and state pumps should be operated to direct flow so that fish are not killed in the pumps. The bill language is vague and could be read as eliminating this flexibility and mandating certain pump operations that would be harmful. Second, other parts of the bill could adversely affect California’s wildlife refuges by reducing the amount of Delta water delivered to these refuges, causing the refuges to pump polluted and expensive groundwater. This could create serious impacts for the refuges and for the millions of migratory birds that depend on them.

California’s drought is unprecedented and the effects will be serious on all users of water – be they fish, fowl or human. However, in this face of adversity, we need to focus on real solutions. As the Brown Administration stated in its State Water Action Plan, “there are no silver bullets or single projects that will ‘fix the problem.’ We must have a portfolio of actions to comprehensively address the challenges this state faces.”

Kim Delfino is the Director of California Programs for Defenders of Wildlife.

5 Responses to “California Drought Legislation Must Strike a Balance To Protect Fish and Wildlife, Too”

  1. EHS

    The Obama Admin shut off water access to whole farming communities for the sake of a minnow. This minnow could be grown in fish farms. This drought is made by the Democrat Party. It’s sad to say. I hope the best for these folks.

  2. Stephanie Benavidez

    Drought is not created by political parties. It is created by how people all over the world use their natural resources, in this case it is primarily water. Every living thing plants and animals use it as needed, but people have impacted that use greatly through waste. Now we are scrambling to put back a balance of what we as humans thought was never ending given how much of this planet is covered in water. So it should be best of luck to us all and NOT THESE FOLKS. were in this together. And yes to Lake Merritt Wildlife Refuge it is our legacy

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