Turning Away From Poor Choices
California’s epic five-year drought — more than 83 percent of the Golden State remains mired in moderate to exceptional drought according to U.S. Drought Monitor — has left those who love and wish to preserve nature and the environment a dwindling hand of bad options, poor choices or worse. Managing the state’s dwindling stores of water has been tragically reduced to choosing what harm to cause to the environment, habitats, endangered species, wildlife and fish, as well as to the people of California.
These are just a few examples of past decisions with unintended consequences:
- Diverting water from urban use and food production to save fish results in many square miles of sinking land, reverses the flows of waterways and permanently destroys underground aquifers.
- Preserving water quality by increasing river flows results in parched wildlife refuges unable to feed Pacific flyway waterfowl and ward off disease, with devastating consequences for millions of migrating birds.
- Releasing steady flows of reservoir water to keep rivers cold for endangered species fools them into returning to the wrong rivers, spawning in the wrong places at the wrong times.
- Turning back saltwater intrusions into the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta Estuary also reduces turbidity (murkiness); makes it easier for non-native predators to eat endangered species of smelt, steelhead and salmon; and it kills the very plankton that endangered Delta smelt need to survive, starving them into extinction.
- Releasing pulse flows of fast moving water down the Trinity and Klamath rivers to wash away harmful parasites deadly to fish favors non-threatened species over endangered species.
Since 1992, when the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) won a key court battle protect endangered species that concurred on the activist group a powerful influence over state officials, California has to an unprecedented degree usurped power and grown its role in managing the state’s water supply to serve environmental needs.
Today, environmental uses for the state’s water far outstrip all other uses, including those providing water for people and food producers. More than half the water supply captured and stored in California is seized by the state for its environmental uses. The NRDC and other environmental groups seek to increase still further environmental uses of the state’s water, despite outcries of protest and a checkered record of failures, some the subject of writings in this journal.
Among them are these failures:
- Despite water releases the NRDC, recreational and commercial fishing groups and Restore the Delta said would protect them, endangered wild Delta smelt populations have fallen to zero; so few are counted today that they are statistically — if not actually — extinct in the Delta. A few thousand smelt survive in U.C.-Davis researchers’ tanks.
- In 2014 NRDC, C-WIN, Sierra Club California and Native American tribes pushed hard for early water releases into the Sacramento River and the state complied; cold-water reserves in Lake Shasta became exhausted just as endangered winter-run Chinook salmon reached their spawning grounds and nearly the entire population died. The entire tragic sequence repeated itself in 2015. Only average precipitation in 2016 filling major dams in the Sacramento River watershed allowed the strategy to work in 2016 — at least for now.
- In 2015 NRDC and Save the San Joaquin activists pushed for water releases into tributaries of the San Joaquin River, flooding the lower San Joaquin with warm water and nutrients and triggering a water-hyacinth bloom that choked miles of the Delta and fostered rapid growth of non-native predator bass and other fish that decimated returning steelhead, salmon, and other endangered species.
- In 2016, fisheries biologists noted that rainbow trout and threatened steelhead numbers in the Stanislaus River had dropped to record lows, a result of warm-water releases from New Melones Reservoir under federally and state-driven mandates that virtually exhausted the reservoir’s water resources.
What the NRDC and allied groups say will work hasn’t and doesn’t.
What cures the environmental activists prescribe actually hasten deaths for their patients.
What the environmental movement has actually achieved is a growing recognition by experts that nature knows better than mankind when it comes to the right course for protecting the environment.
Doing more of the same is demonstrably not the right choice. Based on the result we have observed, continuing and expanding these failed policies will only hurt the environment, birds and fish at unprecedented levels. True extinction of wild Delta Smelt and winter-run Chinook salmon is a demonstrated possibility.
We must recognize both that there are negative side effects to our actions and that we are unable to reliably predict those effects.
We need to regroup, consider carefully how to undo our damage and start anew to work with nature and endangered species’ survival instincts. We must learn through experience, ignore emotion and focus on science-proven options.
Most importantly, we must predict with confidence the expected results of our interventions and measure whether those predictions are being realized when we interfere with natural processes.
We must stop harming the environment by trying to protect it. We must turn away from more poor, ineffectual and bad choices.