Trump Administration Loosens Protections For Endangered Fish in California

Photo: California Department of Water Resources

The Departments of Interior and Commerce issued this week a new biological opinion under the Endangered Species Act that governs the division of water among, farmers, cities, and conservation in California, and the new opinion fundamentally changed the prior allocations in favor of more water for agriculture.  Environmental groups believe that science does not support the conclusion that farmers can have more water without putting endangered salmon and a small fish called smelt in jeopardy of extinction in the region. One more fact — the Secretary of Interior was, prior to joining the administration, a lobbyist for the farmers who are benefitting directly from this water allocation change.

Why This Matters: It appears that political leadership at both agencies pushed aside the agency scientists who were set to release a biological opinion that would continue the prior water allocation balance in order to protect the fish, and replaced them last summer with a hand-picked new group of lawyers, administrators, and biologists to “refine” and “improve” the rules, according to local NPR station KQEDCareer scientists in both agencies had been quite adamant about the water needs of the fish in my (Monica’s) past experience on these issues.  I seriously doubt that the career biologists agreed with what the Interior Department claimed — that the changes “will not jeopardize threatened or endangered species or adversely modify their critical habitat.”

What’s the Harm?

According to The New York Times, the water allocations ensured that in times of drought, California rivers that are critical habitat for the fish would get enough water to keep the fish from becoming extinct. In addition, taking water out of those rivers and putting it into agriculture would also harm water birds and killer whales, reduce the catch of salmon by commercial fishers in the region, and promote toxic algal blooms.  Once it becomes final, the changes to operations in the Central Valley water would go into effect and water could be diverted from fish to farms by the spring of 2020, depending on how much rain and snow northern California receives this winter.

The Interior Department argues that their new biological opinion and resulting water operations plan “includes more nimble and responsive water project operations that both protect endangered fish and allow the flexibility to quickly adapt to changing conditions — like the variable weather in California — to ensure effective and efficient water supply management.”

Environmental advocates and fishermen strongly disagree and will likely sue the government.  “The servile Interior Department has hijacked and subverted the scientific process,” said Noah Oppenheim, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, in a statement. “Fishing jobs are being sacrificed to benefit the corporate agriculture lobby, pure and simple.”

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