California Urged to Rethink 40 Years of ‘Piecemeal’ Freshwater Protections

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – When wet weather mercifully returned to California in 2017, it not only stabilized a booming farming economy and pulled millions of residents from drought – it also staved off an extinction event brewing in the state’s majestic snow-fed rivers.

McCloud River, Siskiyou County, California. (Michael Kahn / MK Library via Wikipedia)

Ultimately the drought had relatively minor impacts on most urban Californians who suddenly had to do things like let their lawns go brown or – gasp – ask for water while dining out. But under the surface, 18 fish species including coho and chinook nearly disappeared for good from California rivers and streams.

The bitter drought validated scientists’ warnings that despite longstanding endangered species protections, the state’s outdated and overtaxed water management plans are failing in the face of climate change.

With an ever-increasing demand for water and the threat of larger droughts looming, a report released Thursday by the Public Policy Institute of California recommends the state stop prioritizing individual species recovery plans and adopt holistic management methods that improve entire freshwater ecosystems.

“While this approach has prevented extinctions, it also places an emphasis on reducing harm to listed species, rather than improving overall ecosystem condition necessary to recover their populations,” the PPIC report states.

Prepared by over a dozen California professors and water experts, the report says the decline of native biodiversity is a problem that requires the state, federal agencies, water suppliers and environmentalists to come to the bargaining table. It says 40 years of “piecemeal” protections are due for an update.

Jeffrey Mount, senior fellow at the institute’s water policy center, presented the report Thursday in Sacramento and cast the endangered species act as the wrong lever for treating California’s complex water issues.

“The act is very weak on trying to worry about climate change, changing conditions, anticipating new listings of species and declines of species,” the University of California, Davis, earth sciences professor said. “It’s reacting, emergency room treatment of a narrow problem.”

Rather than relying on state and federal species protections, experts at the nonpartisan think tank favor an alternative strategy called ecosystem-based management. The institute says individual management plans for California’s various watersheds that are crafted by a variety of decision-makers could have ecological, social and economic benefits.

Successful ecosystem plans would do things like establish new “water budgets” for watersheds, rejuvenate floodplains and wetlands, improve water quality and manage invasive species. The researchers claim the plans would incorporate new science and reduce the need for new endangered species listings that can be costly to implement.

The institute’s call for collaboration comes at a critical time as both the Trump administration and the state are planning major policy overhauls that could leave less water for fish.

In October, the Trump administration released two biological opinions that will eventually allow managers to ship more water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to the Central Valley, one of the most agriculturally productive areas in the United States. Even though protected species in the delta have been suffering for years due to lack of water and poor quality, the administration says increasing pumping at certain times of the year won’t harm them going forward.

Conservation groups have responded with a lawsuit, calling the opinions politically motivated and unsound scientifically.

Meanwhile the state has hinted it will also sue over the feds’ opinion and has additionally introduced its own plan that it claims will give managers more flexibility in managing flows for fish populations. At the same time, the state is continuing to pursue a separate multi-billion-dollar plan for a massive tunnel that would divert Sacramento River flows from the delta and directly into the state’s aqueduct system.

Environmentalists oppose both proposals and are wholeheartedly against taking more water from the embattled delta.

With the involvement of multiple interest groups, the report says ecosystem-based planning would reduce litigation that often plagues new water decisions and move away from “farmers versus fish” battles.

“By committing to pre-drought planning, managers and stakeholders can set priorities, identify trade-offs, and create water allocation and habitat plans to better mitigate impacts and provide greater certainty for freshwater ecosystems and the water user community,” the 25-page report continues.

Under the researchers’ favored scenario, the State Water Resources Control Board would drive implementation by incentivizing individual regions to create their own agreements. The board would set timelines and ensure that the ecosystem-based management plans meet water quality laws and other regulations. This approach avoids new major regulatory reforms but would require high levels of cooperation between water users and managers.

Another option is for the Legislature to take a more hands-on approach and pass a law requiring the development of sustainable management plans, as it did in 2014 with a landmark groundwater monitoring law. This approach would carry inherent financial costs as well as significant administrative and potentially legal burdens.

According the institute, the state is more than capable of implementing the ecosystem-based approach without violating federal laws. Mount says there is wiggle room in the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act as well as the state’s Porter-Cologne Act to adopt the report’s main principles.

Former California Natural Resources Agency Secretary Lester Snow called the ecosystem report “excellent” and “valuable,” but added its influence will deteriorate if water agencies and managers don’t act swiftly.

“We have to move fast, we cannot have two decades of litigation and negotiation to address a problem that’s actually critical today,” Snow said.

After coming close to losing various salmon populations during the last drought, the institute says change is needed to protect the Golden State’s fragile freshwater ecosystems ahead of the next one.

“Negotiation of comprehensive agreements to guide this change will be neither simple nor without controversy. But California needs a new approach that sets broader ecosystem conservation priorities, seeks to avoid future endangered species listings, makes it easier to adapt to changing conditions, and integrates human uses of the ecosystem. Ecosystem-based management is the best way to get there.”

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