June 24, 2014
Kim Delfino

Last week, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) announced that they are releasing millions of hatchery trout six months earlier than they normally would because river conditions are so low that the trout will die if they wait much longer to release them. This comes on the heels of CDFW biologists’ race to catch and save a federally threatened fish stranded in Uvas Creek, located near Gilroy, about 80 miles south of San Francisco. Uvas Creek is fed from an upstream reservoir that is currently holding only 11 percent of its water capacity. The water flowing downstream is not enough to support the threatened steelhead in this stream, and the creek is quickly drying up.

Salmon, © J. Cook Fisher/FlickrEarlier in the year, between the end of March and end of May, CDFW and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) trucked millions of salmon from Red Bluff, near the start of the Sacramento River, to the San Francisco Bay, detouring around the Sacramento River in order to avoid the harmful conditions from low water flows caused by the drought. These efforts to save California’s fish and wildlife from the devastating impacts of the drought are just the beginning of what will be extraordinary efforts by fish and wildlife biologists as this year (and particularly this summer) progresses.

Wildlife refuges and wetlands are also suffering from the drought. These habitats are drying up and crops normally planted on wildlife refuges to benefit migratory birds are going unplanted due to lack of water. When their migrations start up in the fall, birds are going to have a very hard time finding the necessary food and water to help them as they make their way on the Pacific Flyway.

As the summer heats up and water becomes even more scarce, federal and state fish and wildlife biologists will scramble to rescue more endangered fish stuck in drought-stricken waterways and to help other wildlife suffering from lack of food and water. With all of these threats facing California’s diverse and unique fish and wildlife, one of the biggest threats does not come from Mother Nature, but from the U.S. Congress.

In February, the House of Representatives passed an extreme anti-environmental bill, cloaked as drought legislation, that threatens Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections for salmon, steelhead, smelt and sturgeon in the rivers that feed the Bay Delta, as well as the Delta itself. H.R. 3964, authored by Representative David Valadao (R-CA) not only undermines ESA protections, but it also is aimed at undoing the current restoration of the San Joaquin River, once one of California’s mightiest salmon producing rivers. It also rolls back protections under another environmental law, the federal Wild and Scenic River Act. As if that were not bad enough, it also undermines protections for federal wildlife refuges and state wildlife areas provided by the Central Valley Project Improvement Act.

Bay Delta, © Vlad and Marina Butsky

Wetlands of the Bay Delta that depend on the dwindling water supply.

Despite passing the House of Representatives, the bill did not look like it had a chance of going any further. California Senators Dianne Feinstein (D) and Barbara Boxer (D) criticized it, and President Obama vowed to veto the measure. Unfortunately, Valadao’s bill isn’t the only item of concern. The Senate has breathed new life into the efforts of extreme anti-environmental members of Congress who are using California’s drought as an excuse to gut federal and state environmental protection such as the ESA. Just last month, the U.S. Senate passed its own “drought” legislation (S.2198), authored by Senator Dianne Feinstein and co-sponsored by Senator Barbara Boxer. While their bill mainly includes provisions that put administrative actions already undertaken by federal and state fish and wildlife agencies and water managers to provide more water to Central Valley farmers into law, it also includes a provision overriding ESA protections for endangered and threatened salmon and steelhead in the San Joaquin River and Bay Delta.

Despite Senator Feinstein publicly stating that it is not her intention to undermine existing environmental laws, 15 senators, led by Environment and Public Works ranking member David Vitter (R-LA), read her bill differently. In their letter, these 15 anti-environmental senators expressed their support for Senator Feinstein’s drought bill, stating that they allowed Sen. Feinstein’s bill to pass the Senate because endangered fish are taking water that should go to farmers and people, and because they want to corral support for future anti-ESA battles.

western drought map, © USDANow, with the passage of so-called drought legislation in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, the stage is set for an informal “conference” – or set of discussions – between Senators Feinstein and Boxer and Representative Valadao and his extreme House allies to determine if a “compromise” bill is possible. This does not bode well for California’s endangered fish and wildlife since, as we noted, these two bills both seem to start with the underlying premise that it is our endangered species laws that are the cause of the problems in California from the drought – which is not the case. Lack of rain and snow has caused the drought. Not environmental protections.

Fortunately, a recent poll conducted by the Los Angeles Times found that a majority of Californians know better— more than half of California voters polled did not believe that current environmental protections were to blame for the hardships caused by the drought, and did not support suspending protections for fish and wildlife.

As California’s summer progresses, and fish and wildlife face the serious impacts from little available water, Congress will be debating how to solve the drought. Congress should listen to the voters and avoid agreeing to any “compromise” drought bill that undermines existing environmental protections. Instead, as the voters in the Los Angeles Times poll indicated, our leaders need to avoid pointing fingers at our environmental laws and instead focus on real, sustainable solutions such as water recycling, storm water capture, better storage in underground aquifers and voluntary conservation.

Kim Delfino is the California Program Director for Defenders of Wildlife


Kim Delfino

Kim Delfino

California Program Director
Kim Delfino oversees the work of Defenders’ six-person California program team in protecting and restoring California’s imperiled wildlife and the places in which they live.

Follow Defenders of Wildlife