Does the Obama administration think that Endangered Species Act relief won't help the San Joaquin Valley?

September 09, 2009 | By PACIFIC LEGAL FOUNDATION

Author: Brandon Middleton

Last week Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Commerce Secretary Gary Locke submitted this letter to California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in response to the Governor's request that the Obama administration engage in reconsultation over two Endangered Species Act biological opinions. The Secretaries denied the Governor's request, but their response is more disappointing for its reflection of a bogus theme that pervades the environmental community: that those who desire Endangered Species Act relief for the San Joaquin Valley blame federal regulatory restrictions, and nothing more, for their water woes.

This theme allows environmental advocates to wrongly paint Gov. Schwarzenegger and others as unreasonable for their apparent failure to acknowledge other contributing factors to the Valley's water shortage, such as the natural drought that has persisted over the past couple of years. Consider the following message from Secretaries Salazar and Locke in their joint letter to Schwarzenegger:

Although your letter suggests that the water shortage is due to scientific judgments made by the Federal Government, the State's own water experts have stated publicly that approximately 1.6 million acre-feet of the shortfall felt by the State and Federal water projects is due solely to the drought.

Secretaries Salazar and Locke chastise the Governor as if he had suggested that reconsideration of Endangered Species Act restrictions could serve as a panacea for all of the San Joaquin Valley's water issues.

The problem, of course, is that the Governor made nothing close to this sort of suggestion.  He simply requested that the Obama administration take a more comprehensive approach towards species protection instead of the species-by-species approach that currently exists in the biological opinions.

In May, the Governor (through Department of Water Resources Director Lester Snow) sought reconsultation over the delta smelt biological opinion in order to "incorporate new scientific information about the species and stressors to the [Delta] ecosystem and to better integrate protections for multiple species with water operations for the interim period until the more comprehensive and long-term [Bay Delta Conservation Plan] is in place."  In August, the Governor again requested consultation (and again through Director Snow) so as to "better integrate protections for multiple species that are now being addressed in individual Biological Opinions and other [National Marine Fisheries Service] actions regulating ocean harvest and to integrate long-term protections currently being developed through the BDCP process." 

Contrary to the Obama administration's belief, Governor Schwarzenegger came nowhere close to "lay[ing] the California water crisis at the feet of [federal] agency scientists." He only highlighted one of the fundamental flaws of the Endangered Species Act:

It is clear that we are trapped in an outdated and rigid bureaucratic process that dictates fish protection actions one species at a time rather than evaluating the entire ecosystem and addressing its many stressors. State and federal water pumps clearly impact the Delta, but regulating as though they are the only influences ignores the complexity of the situation and creates new problems while failing to solve others.

The reality here is that Secretaries Salazar and Locke inadequately responded to Gov. Schwarzenegger's concern that the biological opinions "impose significant water supply and economic impacts without demonstrating assured benefits for the environment." Reading the joint letter from the Secretaries, the intent of the Obama administration seems to have been to dismiss "claims that environmental protections mandated by Federal law have caused the water shortages in the Central Valley of California" (italics mine), as if there was a dispute that the Endangered Species Act has prevented water from flowing to the Valley.

The administration is clearly having trouble admitting that the ESA restrictions are in fact causing water shortages, a disturbing trend we've previously noted.  The trend continues in today's Wall Street Journal (h/t: Aquafornia), where Secretary Salazar again fails to admit the biological opinions have had a real impact on California's water supply.

It is misleading to suggest that advocates for ESA relief see their cause as a cure-all, but the Obama administration is not alone in this discrediting effort. In response to a September 2 WSJ editorial, NRDC's Doug Obegi wrote that "the Journal wants to blame everything on a tiny fish in order to fan the flames of the right wing fantasy of overturning the Endangered Species Act." In reality, the first paragraph of the Journal's editorial notes that the San Joaquin Valley "is suffering in a drought made worse by federal regulations." (italics mine)

In short, it is simply not the case that Governor Schwarzenegger and others who seek regulatory relief (like Pacific Legal Foundation) blame everything on the Endangered Species Act. But there's no denying that the ESA restrictions are one of the few things that the federal government can control when it comes to this water crisis. In this regard, you would hope that the Obama administration would do a better job at understanding how it can help.