The Endangered Species Act and water uncertainty aren't going away anytime soon


Author: Brandon Middleton

Much has been made about the Bureau of Reclamation's announcement last week that farmers in the western San Joaquin Valley will receive 30% of their contractual water allotments if 2010 is an average water year.  As I mentioned earlier this week, that's a very big "if." 

The San Francisco Chronicle described Reclamation's announcement as a forecast of "healthy flows to water systems and agricultural districts" and praised the government for bringing "relief for hard-pressed farmers, big-city water districts and fish that need steady flows to survive."  We should not be so naïve.

The fact is that there remains a possibility that many water users, including San Joaquin Valley farmers, could receive only 5% of their contractual water entitlements. The government is currently preventing a vast amount of water from flowing to these farmers by restricting water pumps under the Endangered Species Act, but it is far from certain that the pumping restrictions will turn around the decline of the delta smelt, Chinook salmon, and other endangered species in the California delta region. There are a multitude of factors that have contributed to these species' downward trends, but for whatever reason the government has chosen to scapegoat the water pumps for the entire situation.

The ESA restrictions have resulted in a "maybe 5%, maybe 30%" allocation scenario, which in turn has created substantial uncertainty over farmers' most critical resource.  Western Growers' Tom Nassif described the situation best (h/t: Aquafornia):

"Farmers have to make business decisions for the year right now, but today’s announcement – maybe five percent, maybe another eight to ten percent on top of that, but maybe 30 percent – only adds confusion to despair.

"We all hope a ‘dry year’ scenario that would result in a five percent allocation does not come true. The federal government today pointed out the obvious – that California is experiencing an average water year to date – and said if this condition continues the allocation could be as high as 30 percent. This goes to the heart of the problem: Because of the ESA-based biological opinions restricting delivery of water to farms and cities south of the Delta, it no longer matters very much if the state receives ample rain and snow since that water cannot be delivered where it is needed. Despite the fact that the largest federal storage reservoir, Shasta, is at nearly 100 percent of average storage for this time of year, the federal government still can only ‘hope’ that completion of an average water year will result in perhaps a one-third water allocation. An average water year that fills Shasta and the other reservoirs should result in something much closer to a 100 percent allocation, not ‘maybe 30 percent.’"

For those who, like Prof. Michael, "don't understand the Pacific Legal Foundation when it comes to California water," this is why we get involved.  The Endangered Species Act is a flawed law that offers no consideration of the real-world impact its restrictions have on those who provide the country with food and jobs.  It is simply another example of the federal government's flaunting of the ConstitutionThe ESA places fish and other species ahead of people, so there needs to be a voice to defend Americans from this well-intentioned law gone wrong.  PLF is proud to take up the call.