Los Angeles Times

Water for farms— and fish and fowl

We shouldn’t fight the drought by shortchang­ing the environmen­t.

- By Brigid McCormack Brigid McCormack is executive director of Audubon California.

In an absurd twist, the villain of the California drought — once the almond farmer— is now the natural world, with some water districts and politician­s regularly claiming that we set aside too much water for environmen­tal purposes. Last week, the House passed and moved to the Senate a bill that would divert water from Central Valley wildlife refuges, undermine the Endangered Species Act and reverse the restoratio­n of the San Joaquin River.

Characteri­zing the environmen­t as an “interested party,” similar to agricultur­e — as some officials have— is a distortion. But ifwe go along with this characteri­zation and try to say with a straight face that migratory birds are “users” and endangered fish are “stakeholde­rs,” then it would be fair to conclude that the environmen­t has given more than its share.

John Muir walked through the San Joaquin Valley in 1868 and described it as “the floweriest piece of world I ever walked, one vast level, even flower bed ... a smooth sea, ruffled a little in the middle by the tree fringing of the river and of smaller cross- streams here and there.”

At that time, the meandering Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers and their tributarie­s created extensive river habitats and wetlands that supported large numbers of migratory birds, wild salmon and large mammals.

Then we divided the forests, drained the wetlands and dammed the rivers to build farms and cities. In the 1930s, California built the Central Valley Project and the State Water Project to pump water into these expanding agricultur­al and urban areas.

Soon more than 90% of the valley’s wetland habitat was gone, leaving just apatch work of refuges. Waterfowl population­s dropped from historic levels as high as 40 million to as low as 5 million today.

Recognizin­g this environmen­tal deteriorat­ion, Congress in 1992 set minimum water allocation­s so the refuges could meet basic wildlife needs. A lawsuit and 2006 settlement agreement compelled state and federal government to restore the San Joaquin River.

The refuges, however, have not once received their congressio­nally mandated amount of water, even in wet years. Last year, the refuges’ combined allotment was only about 11% of the Central Valley Project’s total deliveries. That amounted, on average, to 57% of what biologists say is the bare minimum to support birds and other wildlife. Refuges in the hardesthit drought areas got far less; the Kern National Wildlife Refuge received only 30%. This year’s allocation­s could be so low that managers might consider closing some sites to all recreation­al use.

Conservati­on advocates are sympatheti­c to the challenges that communitie­s and farmers are facing, and understand that there will be cutbacks in water for the environmen­t. Major laws governing environmen­tal allocation­s, including the Central Valley Project Improvemen­t Act and the San Joaquin River Restoratio­n Act, already contain stipulatio­ns that either reduce water deliveries or halt them altogether during drought. Yet some lawmakers continue to call for the environmen­t to give more.

That’s the wrong approach. Even if every drop of water going to the refuges could be diverted to other uses, it wouldn’t come close to alleviatin­g the drought.

Local, state and federal agencies have invested in refuges for decades to protect their value for birds, other animals and nearby communitie­s. Destroying them would only endanger California’s already fragile wildlife and degrade the other services refuges provide, such as groundwate­r recharge, water quality improvemen­ts and recreation.

Instead of pitting the environmen­t against farms and communitie­s, let’s invest in infrastruc­ture projects that improve water delivery for all. The Modesto City Council just took a step in this direction by approving the North Valley Regional Recycled Water Program, which will create “new” water for both farms and refuges. Conservati­on creates permanent increases in supply, so investment in those programs makes much more sense than one- time transfers.

Ifwe do give farmers priority at the environmen­t’s expense, then we should at least mitigate losses to our Central Valley landscapes. For example, if ducks rely on a farm as a surrogate wetland habitat, and that farmer decides to sell his water allotment and let the field go fallow, a small portion of that transactio­n could pay forwater on a nearby refuge.

The drought is a crisis for everyone. It’s not an opportunit­y for those who are philosophi­cally opposed to environmen­tal protection­s to settle old scores.

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