Harming the environment in order to ‘help’ it

Legal myopia allows federal officials to short-change one endangered species while trying to help another.

By Damien Schiff

and Ashley Indrieri

For the Capital Press

Published on July 17, 2014 10:45AM


It’s a word for near-sightedness, of course.

But Merriam-Webster also gives a second definition: “A lack of foresight or discernment: a narrow view of something.”

In California, either meaning would fit the damaging way that federal regulators have been allocating — or refusing to allocate — our most precious resource: water.

That resource is at more of a premium than ever. Gov. Jerry Brown declared a drought “state of emergency” in the middle of the winter; we’re now well into summer, and the emergency worsens. In recent weeks, drought levels for the entire state have been recorded as “severe,” “extreme” or “exceptional.”

Obviously, the shortage of rainfall has been scorching.

But we’re also plagued by a shortage of bureaucratic common sense.

Our natural drought is harsher because it’s also a regulatory drought. In recent years, water has been withheld and wasted on a vast scale — not by mistake, but as a matter of conscious government policy.

Instead of storing up as much water as feasible, in dams, for dry years like this one, federal officials since 2008 have allowed vast quantities of water from Northern California and the Sierra to flow directly to the ocean. They’ve intentionally diverted water away from the state and federal delivery projects that were built to provide for the needs of Central and Southern California.

Withholding water from tens of millions of people is “myopic” in every sense of the word. Why? Because it’s being done in the name of the environment — yet there’s every reason to believe it’s actually harming the environment.

The supposed beneficiary is the Delta smelt, a tiny fish on the federal Endangered Species Act list. It’s been declining for years, a victim of predator species, urban waste and runoff, and other factors. The downward trend hasn’t been halted by cutbacks in water pumping.

In contrast to the elusive ecological benefits of the water cutbacks, the environmental damage is real and observable.

People have been forced to turn more and more to groundwater — and this, in turn, has caused land to subside. As hundreds of thousands of acres in the San Joaquin Valley have been withdrawn from productive farming, dust from dry fields fills the air.

The effect is devastating on the human environment for livable communities supported by a stable economy. The University of California-Davis Center for Watershed Sciences reported that this year’s drought will impose a $1.7 billion cost on California’s agricultural economy, and job losses in the Central Valley from water reductions will top 14,000.

But people aren’t alone in their need for water. What about the animal and plant species that will be left high and dry by a natural drought exacerbated by government water reductions?

Here are some species, found in regions served by the state and federal water projects, that are listed under the Endangered Species Act as either “threatened” or “endangered:”

• Condors.

• San Joaquin Valley kit foxes.

• Riparian brush rabbits.

• Sphinx moths.

• Blunt nosed leopard lizards.

• Riparian woodrats.

• Tipton kangaroo rats.

• Salt marsh harvest mice.

• California clapper rail.

• Giant garter snakes.

• California red-legged frogs.

• Valley elderberry longhorn beetles.

• Suisin thistles.

How have the regulatory cutbacks on water affected these species? Don’t ask the federal officials who ordered the cutbacks, because they don’t have an answer. At least they don’t have any studies on record.

Incredibly, under current U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service rules, restrictions can be imposed on water and land use, in order to “help” one species, without any consideration of the impact on other species.

In non-bureaucratic language, that’s called “a lack of foresight or discernment; a narrow view of something.”

It’s shocking that environmental regulators can issue sweeping decrees without a full grasp of their environmental effects.

Something’s got to change in the way environmental policies are shaped and implemented, for the sake of their effectiveness and fundamental credibility. We can’t allow our air, water and species to be degraded by near-sighted edicts from regulators who are supposed to be helping the environment, not harming it.

Damien Schiff is a principal attorney with Pacific Legal Foundation. Ashley Indrieri is PLF’s public outreach coordinator and grant writer.


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