Opinion Columns & Blogs

Feds’ water cutoffs for smelt leave other species high and dry

In their attempt to save the Delta smelt, federal water managers have diverted water that would otherwise help the California condor, writes Tony Francois of the Pacific Legal Foundation.
In their attempt to save the Delta smelt, federal water managers have diverted water that would otherwise help the California condor, writes Tony Francois of the Pacific Legal Foundation. The Fresno Bee file

I sometimes have to wonder how the San Joaquin Valley’s federal water managers look themselves in the mirror.

Since 2008, they have withheld the water of life from the Valley in order to protect the Delta smelt, at the cost to the Valley of tens of thousands of jobs lost, hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland fallowed, and billions of dollars in economic harm to Valley communities. All the while insisting that they had to do this to protect one species of endangered wildlife, no matter the cost to families and communities.

The cruel joke in all of this has actually two punch lines.

First, the smelt continue to collapse toward extinction, despite having the Valley’s federal water lavished on them. It appears that “conserving wildlife” is no more a necessary performance metric for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service than “not letting veterans die on medical waiting lists” is for the Veterans Administration. Nothing new under the federal sun, I suppose.

Second, in order to waste the Valley’s federal water supply on the smelt, federal bureaucrats have diverted that water from several other species of endangered wildlife in the Valley: the California tiger salamander, the kit fox, various species of fairy shrimp, and even the iconic California condor.

These species all share two things in common: They rely on San Joaquin Valley irrigated farms for food, water, shelter, and habitat; and the Fish and Wildlife Service is supposed to protect them in the same way it is supposed to protect the Delta smelt. Presumably this includes by ensuring that federal water management does not deprive them and their habitat of needed water.

But that is exactly what the Fish and Wildlife Service and its sister agency, the Bureau of Reclamation, are doing. They are dewatering thousands of acres of the habitat of several Valley endangered species to give that water to one Delta species. No balance, and certainly no urgency to make sure that species like the kit fox and the condor get water, no matter the cost.

In fact, the federal agencies have not even performed a legally mandated consultation over the adverse impacts that dewatering the Valley is having on federally listed species that rely on irrigated farms for habitat. So along with no balance, add no accountability.

To hold the Bureau of Reclamation and Fish and Wildlife Service accountable, people in the Valley must stand up to them, and stand up for conservation of wildlife that matters here in the Valley. Lots of people can stand up to the government on this:

▪ Farmers who like the fact that their farms are occupied or potential habitat for San Joaquin Kit Fox, and do not mind disclosing their presence. These farmers may like the fact that kit fox predate rodents and other pests that would otherwise harm crops, or may simply appreciate them for aesthetic and conservation reasons.

▪ High school, college, and university teachers and faculty, who take students on field trips to view endangered wildlife for study or aesthetic enjoyment. An example might be a wildlife biology teacher who takes students to see vernal pool habitats to study fairy shrimp or tiger salamanders and their habitats. Even students who makes these visits, or parents who chaperone them, can challenge the deprivation of water to Valley endangered species.

▪ Hikers, campers, kayakers, bicyclists, hunters and fishermen, and other outdoor enthusiasts, who regularly engage in outdoor recreation in habitat for kit fox or other federally listed species.

▪ Ranchers or bird watchers who appreciate and observe California condors within their range.

▪ Any person or organization that, for any reason, maintains or conserves habitat for fairy shrimp, tiger salamanders, kit fox, willow flycatcher, or other federally listed endangered species.

To stop the deprivation of water to Valley endangered species and the irrigated farms on which they rely for habitat, someone must stand up to the federal bureaucrats, and say enough is enough.

You can learn more about how the federal government is harming San Joaquin Valley irrigated farms and the wildlife that depend on them at pacificlegal.org. If you have a story to tell, or want to stand up for Valley wildlife, please stop by and let us know.

Tony Francois is a senior staff attorney with Pacific Legal Foundation.

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