In his 2011 State of the Union speech, President Obama caught the attention of many of us when he said, “The Interior Department is in charge of salmon while they’re in fresh water, but the Commerce Department handles them when they’re in saltwater. And I hear it gets even more complicated once they’re smoked.”
This moment may have provided the first, widespread public awareness of the absurdity of having multiple federal agencies responsible for enforcing the federal Endangered Species Act.
The Trump administration last year proposed to combine the responsibilities of both the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under one federal roof. This would promote more efficient, effective, and coordinated management of all ESA responsibilities for anadromous and freshwater fish in Western watersheds, from the highest reaches of our headwaters to the Pacific Ocean.
Many Western irrigators operate in watersheds that provide habitat for threatened and endangered species protected by the ESA. These producers can be significantly impacted by decisions made by the fisheries services. Western watersheds that drain to the Pacific Ocean are home to many species of fish. Some of these species are listed as “endangered” or “threatened” under the ESA.
However, within this group, some fall under the responsibility of NMFS and others are overseen by the USFWS. Because they can have different migration patterns or life histories, what can result is duplicative and sometimes overlapping actions by each of the agencies under the ESA.
The scope of similar or identical ESA actions performed by each agency can be extensive: designation of critical habitat, development of species recovery plans and conservation programs, consultation activities, to name a few.
These functions would most effectively and efficiently be conducted by one government agency. Instead, as things currently stand, they appear to be arbitrarily split between two different agencies housed in two completely different federal departments. So, up and down the West Coast, from the Klamath Project to the Central Valley Project to the Upper Snake River, duplicative bureaucracies are generating ESA plans that sometimes compete with one another.
In the Klamath example, the two federal regulatory agencies each adopted a single-minded and uncoordinated approach of focusing on Klamath Project operations. One sought to artificially create high reservoir levels for endangered suckers. The other called for artificially high reservoir releases for threatened salmon.
Unfortunately, both agencies did so independent of one another. Based on those regulatory actions, the Bureau of Reclamation announced in 2001 that — for the first time ever — no water would be available from Upper Klamath Lake to supply Project irrigators or the national wildlife refuges. The combined lake level and outflow regulatory requirements equated to a volume of water that was more than what was available. The resulting impacts to the local community were immediate and far-reaching.
A “Klamath-like” situation with potential dire consequences for Idaho water users exists in the Snake River Basin. The NMFS biological opinion (or, BiOp) for the Upper Snake River Basin Projects requires that water be sent downstream for salmon flow augmentation. The USFWS BiOp for bull trout critical habitat requires “bank full” reservoirs in one of the Upper Snake Projects.
When push comes to shove, Idaho water users wonder how they will do both, and still provide water for farms and communities.
Water users served by California’s Central Valley Project face a similar dilemma. Simply put, the Delta smelt BiOp prepared by the USFWS requires flushing flows released from storage to influence smelt habitat. At the same time, the NMFS BiOp for salmon requires keeping water in storage for temperature control.
A committee convened by the National Research Council studied this matter a few years ago. The NRC found that the lack of a systematic, well-framed overall analysis between the two services is “a serious scientific deficiency, and it likely is related to the ESA’s practical limitations as to the scope of actions that can or must be considered in a single biological opinion.”
The Trump administration’s proposal to consolidate NMFS within USFWS would provide greater efficiency, consistency and accountability to the benefit of Western farmers and ranchers. This recommendation would be an important step towards reducing wasted time and money and represents a practical, common-sense change to the ESA.