We may be Defenders of Wildlife, but a big part of what we do is protect habitat. Working in the Central Valley, Bay-Delta, Sierra, and desert regions of California, Defenders is committed to protecting and enhancing aquatic ecosystems by improving the quality and quantity of water and habitat available for fish and wildlife, particularly migratory birds and other wetland-dependent species. We have a unique focus on the needs of threatened, endangered, and declining species in the state that sets our approach and perspective apart from other organizations working on water issues.
Giant garter snakes, listed under the Endangered Species Act, used to exist throughout the extensive wetlands of California, but those wetlands have been destroyed and the snakes are now found in agricultural wetlands and other waterways such as irrigation and drainage canals, sloughs, ponds, small lakes, low gradient streams, and adjacent. Giant garter snakes are scarce, and many live in rice fields, needing enough water to provide food (small fish, tadpoles, and frogs) and suitable habitat. We are exploring methods to ensure the full mitigation of the impacts of water transfers on the imperiled giant garter snake and other wildlife, with a focus on pushing the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to utilize its authority under the California Endangered Species Act.
Defenders has worked for more than 16 years to protect and manage the Salton Sea for the benefit of migratory birds and surrounding communities. Fifteen years ago, the California State Water Resources Control Board and California Legislature approved the largest agriculture-to-urban water transfer in the country, putting plans in place to redirect the water that now sustains the Salton Sea to nearby towns and cities. This process will result in a smaller Salton Sea, exposing more than 100 square miles of dusty and dry sea bed by 2047 and accelerating the path of the Salton Sea toward ecological collapse. The water deal takes full effect in 2018, and the State of California still lacks an adequate plan to create a smaller and sustainable Salton Sea.
Less water flowing to the Salton Sea will create severe health issues for residents in this region who already suffer from the highest rates of childhood asthma in California. It will also significantly threaten habitat for more than 400 species of birds — approximately two-thirds of all bird species in the continental U.S. As a critical stopover on the Pacific Flyway, the Salton Sea is one of the most important locales for migratory birds in the West.
Defenders of Wildlife is working with the State of California, federal agencies, local communities, other environmental organizations, and other stakeholders to make sure that the Salton Sea becomes one of the State’s core issues and the State substantially increases resources to manage projects that protect human health and provide habitat for millions of migratory birds.
Central Valley Wetlands
Defenders has taken steps to ensure that state, federal, and private wildlife refuges in California’s Central Valley receive the water they need to support millions of Pacific Flyway birds and other wetland wildlife. Through the Central Valley Joint Venture, we are working to update and implement the group’s population and habitat objectives. Through this role, we coordinate with hunting and conservation NGOs and state and federal agencies to implement the Central Valley Project Improvement Act’s water supply mandates. We also work in Congress to oppose efforts to undermine protections for wildlife refuge water supplies.
Bay-Delta Plan Update
For over two years, Defenders has been working with a small group of NGOs to negotiate voluntary agreements that could help the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) update and implement the water quality control plan for the San Francisco Bay-Delta and its tributaries. Defenders is now engaging with the Newsom administration to improve upon a framework agreement that emerged in the final days of 2018, and is hopeful that we can craft a deal that protects and restores native wildlife in the Bay-Delta estuary. In addition to participating in the voluntary agreement negotiations, Defenders is continuing to engage with the SWRCB to ensure that it makes progress toward issuing and implementing updated water quality standards that are protective of fish and wildlife. In December 2018, the SWRCB took historic action to update water quality standards for the San Joaquin River and its tributaries. While the new standards are not sufficient to protect Chinook salmon and other species, the Board’s vote was a major step in the right direction, and Defenders will continue to pursue strengthened standards for other parts of the estuary.
Defenders is leading a coalition effort to ensure that the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) adopts a new policy to protect all California wetlands. Though the SWRCB has been working on a wetland definition and dredge or fill procedures (wetlands policy) for years, the effort has become increasingly urgent because of federal efforts to rewrite the Waters of the U.S. rule in a manner that would leave ephemeral headwater streams, vernal pools, and other California wetlands and waters vulnerable to destruction and degradation. In January 2019, the SWRCB released a final draft of the wetlands policy. The final draft includes several improvements that resulted from Defenders’ advocacy efforts, and the policy will help to protect state wetlands from federal rollbacks and assist with California’s efforts to comply with its wetlands no-net-loss policy.
Wildlife-Friendly Water Storage
We know from history that water storage projects can wreak havoc on the environment; in California and throughout the West, traditional dams have killed rivers and blocked migratory routes for salmon and other fish. They’ve also cut off rivers from their historic floodplains, and starved wetlands of the water needed to sustain birds, turtles, snakes, and myriad other wetland creatures. Despite repeated promises that the next project would be different, California’s biggest dams left a long legacy of environmental damage, devastated salmon runs, and bone-dry wetlands.
Defenders is working to ensure that the California Water Commission spends the $2.7 billion for new storage projects from the 2014 water bond on projects that will enhance — rather than harm — essential aquatic ecosystems. Defenders led a coalition effort to advocate for wildlife-friendly projects before the Water Commission. In a major victory for the environment, the Water Commission ultimately allocated very little funding for destructive projects like Temperance Flat Dam, and provided substantial funding for innovative projects like the Los Vaqueros Reservoir Expansion.
We are also actively tracking and will oppose any efforts to raise Shasta Dam — a proposed project that would harm Chinook salmon runs on the Sacramento River, deprive the Bay-Delta of necessary freshwater flows and flood wild and scenic portions of the McCloud River.
Defenders is standing against the California WaterFix project, as currently proposed. Our efforts have included ongoing litigation over the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s and National Marine Fisheries Service’s Endangered Species Act permits for the project, participation in the permitting process before the SWRCB, and education of lawmakers and the public regarding the ecological problems that the project would cause.
Management of Toxic Agricultural Drainage
Defenders is working to ensure that contaminated agricultural drain water management in the San Joaquin Valley includes safeguards for wildlife. Though decades have passed since the disaster at Kesterson Reservoir, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and agricultural water districts are still grappling with how to safely manage selenium-laced drain water. Negotiations have resulted in litigation settlements and proposed legislation that would allow the federal government to walk away from the problem without requiring basic protections for migratory birds and other wildlife. Defenders is working to ensure that any final settlement and enabling legislation include safeguards like performance standards, monitoring and reporting requirements, and enforcement mechanisms. Among other efforts, we have drafted coalition comment letters, educated members of Congress, and highlighted this important issue in the media. We expect renewed discussions regarding the settlements and proposed legislation in 2019.
Defenders is working to ensure aquatic ecosystems throughout California remain safe and vibrant for threatened, endangered, and declining species. We have seen that with the right combination of policy advocacy, partnerships, and outreach — backed by litigation when needed — we can safeguard our planet’s aquatic systems and allow species to prosper and thrive.