New ploy to un­der­mine species act

Los Angeles Times - - BUSINESS - MICHAEL HILTZIK

Just two days af­ter Pres­i­dent Trump is­sued an ut­terly un­in­formed tweet about the causes of the California wild­fires, his ul­te­rior mo­tives be­gan to come into fo­cus.

That hap­pened through an or­der is­sued Wed­nes­day by Com­merce Sec­re­tary Wil­bur Ross to the Na­tional Ma­rine Fish­eries Ser­vice and its par­ent agency, the Na­tional Oceanic and At­mo­spheric Ad­min­is­tra­tion. Both fall un­der Ross’ ju­ris­dic­tion.

The or­der di­rects the agen­cies to “fa­cil­i­tate ac­cess to the wa­ter needed to fight the on­go­ing wild­fires af­fect­ing the State of California.” It then gives the game away by mak­ing spe­cific ref­er­ence to the fed­eral En­dan­gered Species Act: “Con­sis­tent with the emer­gency con­sul­ta­tion pro­vi­sions un­der the ESA, Fed­eral agen­cies may use any wa­ter as nec­es­sary to pro­tect life and prop­erty in the af­fected ar­eas,” the or­der says.

En­vi­ron­men­tal ex­perts aren’t buy­ing Ross’ state­ment.

“Sec­re­tary Ross’s di­rec­tive is noth­ing more than a smoke­screen de­signed to weaken these pro­tec­tions that NMFS’s sci­en­tists de­ter­mined are nec­es­sary to keep these na­tive fish from go­ing ex­tinct,” Kate Poole of the Nat­u­ral Re­sources De­fense Coun­cil said af­ter the state­ment was is­sued. “It’s al­most like the ex­tinc­tion of these crea­tures is their real goal, so that they no longer have to leave any wa­ter in rivers, but can di­vert it all to cor­po­rate agribusi­ness.”

Here’s the con­text: Trump on Mon­day is­sued what we called a “strik­ingly ig­no­rant” tweet blam­ing the wild­fires on “bad en­vi­ron­men­tal laws which aren’t al­low­ing mas­sive amount of read­ily avail­able wa­ter to be prop­erly uti­lized.” We ob­served that this seemed to con­flate two is­sues.

One is the long-term whin­ing by grow­ers in the Cen­tral Val­ley, a Repub­li­can strong­hold, that en­vi­ron­men­tal rules (in­clud­ing the En­dan­gered Species Act) have forced the di­ver­sion of wa­ter they want for ir­riga-

tion into rivers. The river flows are needed to pro­tect fish and fish­eries, and are re­quired un­der fed­eral law and in ac­cor­dance with court rul­ings.

The other is­sue is wa­ter for fight­ing the wild­fires. As nu­mer­ous expert sources have made plain, there is no short­age of wa­ter for this pur­pose. Ma­jor reser­voirs are fully ac­ces­si­ble to the fire zones, and they’re at or near his­tor­i­cal ca­pac­i­ties.

“At this point, wa­ter sup­ply hasn’t af­fected any of our op­er­a­tions,” Mike Mohler, deputy di­rec­tor of the California De­part­ment of Forestry and Fire Pro­tec­tion, or Cal Fire, told me Wed­nes­day. The key fac­tors in the in­ten­sity and spread of the fires are, as be­fore, “hot and dry weather con­di­tions.”

Ross’ state­ment made spe­cific men­tion of the Men­do­cino Com­plex fire, which he noted “has de­vel­oped into the largest in the state’s his­tory, con­sum­ing nearly 300,000 acres in Northern California.” But the Men­do­cino Com­plex fire is im­me­di­ately ad­ja­cent to Clear Lake, a ma­jor reser­voir. Mohler said fire­fight­ers have been draw­ing wa­ter from Clear Lake without any lim­i­ta­tions.

The Com­merce De­part­ment didn’t im­me­di­ately re­spond to my in­quiry about what Ross has in mind, or what ac­tions could be taken by NOAA and the fish­eries ser­vice to re­spond to the cur­rent emer­gency. But Ross’ ref­er­ence to the En­dan­gered Species Act strongly sug­gests that he in­tends to boot­strap the wild­fires into serv­ing the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ex­ist­ing ef­forts to un­der­mine the act for the ben­e­fit of its cronies in Cen­tral Val­ley agri­cul­ture.

It’s also plau­si­ble that the fed­eral gov­ern­ment is try­ing to cir­cum­vent reg­u­la­tions gov­ern­ing the stor­age of wa­ter in the fed­er­ally con­trolled Shasta Lake, the state’s largest reser­voir. The rules are de­signed to pro­tect sal­mon smolt in the Sacramento River, more than 95% of which were de­stroyed in 2014 and 2015 by re­leases of wa­ter that was too warm for them to sur­vive.

Reg­u­la­tions put in place af­ter that dis­as­ter re­quired wa­ter to be held in stor­age to the end of the year, so more cold wa­ter is avail­able for the young sal­mon. But that re­duces the wa­ter avail­able for ir­ri­ga­tion dur­ing the fall. Con­ceiv­ably, Ross’ or­der could al­low the reser­voir to re­lease wa­ter now — a boon to farm­ers, but a calamity for the sal­mon fish­ery. Im­por­tantly, re­leas­ing wa­ter now would do noth­ing to as­sist fire­fight­ers.

As we’ve re­ported, the Bureau of Recla­ma­tion, an In­te­rior De­part­ment agency, has pro­posed changes in both state and fed­eral wa­ter projects to “max­i­mize wa­ter de­liv­er­ies” to non-en­vi­ron­men­tal users and con­sider “mod­i­fi­ca­tions to reg­u­la­tory re­quire­ments” estab­lished by the bi­o­log­i­cal opin­ions.

Mean­while, the In­te­rior and Com­merce de­part­ments have jointly pro­posed changes in the fed­eral En­dan­gered Species Act that would shrink the ros­ter of species granted le­gal pro­tec­tions and loosen the rules pro­tect­ing those that re­main on the list.

Ross’ or­der cer­tainly looks like a trans­par­ent at­tempt to ex­pand that cam­paign. Ross hinted as much. His or­der not only di­rected NOAA to “fa­cil­i­tate the use of wa­ter for this emer­gency,” but stated that “go­ing for­ward, the De­part­ment and NOAA are com­mit­ted to find­ing new so­lu­tions to ad­dress threat­ened and en­dan­gered species in the con­text of the chal­leng­ing wa­ter man­age­ment sit­u­a­tion in California.”

That cer­tainly sounds like plans to shrink pro­tec­tions for threat­ened and en­dan­gered species by in­vok­ing all as­pects of the “wa­ter man­age­ment sit­u­a­tion” in the state — in­clud­ing serv­ing the grow­ers. Any­one con­cerned with try­ing to fash­ion ra­tio­nal wa­ter pol­icy in the face of po­lit­i­cally self-in­ter­ested in­ter­fer­ence out of Wash­ing­ton should take heed. The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion just sig­naled that it will stop at noth­ing, no mat­ter how il­log­i­cal.

Mar­cio Jose Sanchez As­so­ci­ated Press

REG­U­LA­TIONS WERE put in place to pro­tect sal­mon smolt af­ter more than 95% were de­stroyed in 2014 and 2015 by re­leases of wa­ter that was too warm.

Kent Nishimura Los Angeles Times

FED­ERAL RULES gov­ern the stor­age of wa­ter in Shasta Lake to safe­guard sal­mon smolt. Two U.S. agen­cies have pro­posed changes to the En­dan­gered Species Act to shrink the ros­ter of species granted le­gal pro­tec­tions.

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