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Kate Poole’s Blog

California's Misguided Water Policy - Latest Approach Attracts Troubling Bedfellows

Kate Poole

Posted May 15, 2014 in Living Sustainably, Saving Wildlife and Wild Places, U.S. Law and Policy

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The people of California and the State’s leaders have long prided themselves on innovation when it comes to protecting the environment.  In many areas, this reputation is well-deserved.  For example:  

  • California passed and is successfully implementing the first comprehensive law in the nation to rein in greenhouse gas emissions;
  • In his first term in the 1970s, Governor Jerry Brown led the nation by establishing energy efficiency standards that reduced the need to build thousands of megawatts of harmful new energy generation;
  • California has implemented coastal and ocean protections that are the gold standard for the nation and much of the world.

But when it comes to pursuing sensible 21st Century water policy, the Brown Administration of late has been a multi-headed hydra, with some encouraging forays into sustainable water management followed by abrupt relapses into 19th Century exploitation mentality.  Unfortunately, the Administration appears to be on the wrong path at the moment, particularly when it comes to the issue of water supply and the health of the Bay-Delta, our largest estuary on the west coast of the Americas.  They should get back on track soon, before too much damage is done to our irreplaceable water resources.  

A sure sign that something is seriously amiss with California’s approach to water management is when states that are renowned for shooting wolves and fighting protections for polar bears cheer your endangered species policy.  Earlier this week, California’s Department of Water Resources (DWR) filed a request (DWR Petition for Rehearing.pdf) with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to override protections for threatened and endangered native fish to allow it to divert more water out of San Francisco’s Bay-Delta watershed for delivery to corporate agriculture and cities in the San Joaquin Valley and southern California.  There was no mandate that DWR file this request – the State could have chosen to abide by the recent decision of a panel of Ninth Circuit judges that upheld fisheries protections, and moved beyond this contentious litigation filed by water contractors that has fomented distrust and paralysis in California’s water community.  Indeed, DWR’s own sister agency in the Natural Resources Agency – the Department of Fish and Wildlife – has affirmed all of the fisheries protections that DWR is now attacking in court as scientifically justified and adopted the same protections under state law. 

But rather than accept the court’s ruling and follow these scientifically-justified protections – which allow it to export as much water out of the Bay-Delta as it did in the 1980s and 1990s – DWR appears to believe it is entitled to export as much water as it wants, without regard for the farmers, fishermen, and others who rely on a healthy Bay-Delta estuary, pretty much as the early settlers did in the 1800s.  This retrograde view won DWR the support in the Ninth Circuit from the states of Wyoming, Kansas, Alaska, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and South Carolina, which filed an amicus brief in support of en banc review (Amicus Brief in support of en banc reheaing by various states.pdf).  In recent years, these states have, in many cases, led the charge to strip endangered and threatened species of vital protections in favor of wealthy and powerful development interests.  The State of Alaska, for example, filed a lawsuit claiming that polar bears were undeserving of listing as a threatened species, favoring increased oil and gas development in Alaska instead.  Wyoming convinced the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to strip wolves of Endangered Species Act protections and adopt Wyoming’s plan sanctioning the complete eradication of wolves across about 85% of the state - leaving Wyoming responsible for maintaining a mere ten breeding pairs outside of Yellowstone National Park and the Wind River Reservation.

Sacrificing polar bears on the altar of fossil fuel development and shooting wolves on sight – are these the policies that California is striving to emulate in terms of recovering our threatened and endangered species and caring for our natural heritage?  The Brown Administration has declared that:  “Science will guide how to best restore the [Delta] ecosystem and how much water can be exported.”  But the science overwhelmingly supports the Delta protections that the Brown Administration is leading the charge to overturn, precisely so that it can export more water. 

Somebody needs to restore the bold vision  that 1970s Governor Brown once embraced  when he rejected construction of massive new power plants in California and adopted energy efficiency measures that have allowed the State to grow and thrive in an environmentally sustainable manner.  That's the wise and necessary approach essential to meet today's water crisis.  But right now the Administration appears to have lost its way – and is making some troubling friends in the process.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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