Reality check needed for Endangered Species Act


Author: Brandon Middleton

The story here in California is sad but easy to understand: the Endangered Species Act is being used to fundamentally alter California's water delivery systems. State and federal projects that were designed to transfer water to the San Joaquin Valley are subject to myriad environmental restrictions. More water for fish hasn't necessarily benefitted threatened and endangered species in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, but it has unquestionably threatened the livelihoods of thousands of farmers and residents of the Valley.

Clearly, the Endangered Species Act is harming a vital part of the American economy.

The Interior and Commerce Departments, charged with enforcing this draconian law, haven't exactly owned up to the true costs of the Endangered Species Act. As we have noted several times (here, here, and here), Interior Secretary Salazar has been less than forthright in acknowledging that giving more water to endangered and threatened fish is not a cost-free scenario. Faced with criticism concerning the overzealous enforcement of the ESA, Interior issued this "Reality Check" press release, attempting to provide "accurate responses to questions about the state's water crisis so that Californians can make informed decisions about water use and help build a sustainable water future for themselves and their communities."

Without admitting that the Endangered Species Act is harming the San Joaquin Valley, this "Reality Check" isn't worth the paper it's printed on.  Consider this reaction from William D. Harrison. As the General Manager for the Del Puerto Water District, Harrison knows first hand just how devastating the ESA has been for the Valley. That is why, according to him, Interior's "Reality Check" "was, quite frankly, insulting. To maintain that our dire water supply circumstance is solely the result of recent below average hydrology and is in no way a exacerbated by environmental restrictions imposed under the Endangered Species Act is misleading at best."

Given the stranglehold the ESA has on the Valley, Harrison provided clarity about what really is at stake:

Since the CVP was built and District growers committed themselves to fulfilling congressional intent, we have never asked for much help from anyone. Provided with an adequate, reliable water supply and a fair plice for our product, we are some of the best in the world at doing the difficult but important work of providing the nation with a safe, reliable and affordable food supply in an environmentally responsible manner.

We are, after all, real people. We have built and continue to live in small agriculturally-based communities on the west side of the San Joaquin valley. We are stewards of the land and care about the environment, the survival of endangered species, clean water, our children's health and education and the safety and well-being of our nation. We are proud, tax-paying American farm families and we have been required to give of our life-blood, our water, until we can give no more and still survive.

The Endangered Species Act is woefully inadequate when it comes to consideration of these human concerns.  That is why Pacific Legal Foundation, along with the City of Coalinga and several San Joaquin Valley farmers, recently filed an amicus curiae brief (available here) concerning the human aspects of the regulatory drought.  Our brief will hopefully convince the federal district court that the National Marine Fisheries Service illegally failed to consider the human environmental costs of its salmon biological opinion.

The true reality check here is that the Endangered Species Act is not a cost-free law.  While federal officials may be reluctant to acknowledge this, Pacific Legal Foundation will continue to advocate for a proper accounting of this draconian law.