16 June 2015

California, the Delta, and the Endangered Species Act

Okay. This started out as a Facebook post, and then it grew a little too polarized and rather too long for that social space. As I'd rather not venture too far into the realm of politics or political ecology (apparently this can become somewhat guilt-inducing?) on FB, I shall transfer the righteous anger to MudSoup.

The topic is the drought in California - the prompt was observing Representative Devin Nunes being a complete numpty and claiming that the drought is manmade. He blames the protection of the Delta Smelt under the Endangered Species Act, and seems to think that letting the Smelt slide away into extinction is no big deal: after all, it is just a "stupid little fish".

So, okay... let's hit pause and analyze the key points here, before we get carried away listening to these crazy people who think the protection of endangered species is what's killing agriculture in California.

We are out of water in California because the current drought has meant less rainfall, less snowfall, and - crucially - less snowmelt during the last four years. There is therefore dramatically less water (from snowmelt) than ever before flowing into California's agricultural Central Valley, and in parallel there is dramatically less water flowing through the Sacramento River and into the Delta.

The Delta, an estuarine ecosystem, is lined with some of the richest and most fertile agricultural land in North America. It is from here that we pump water away from the Sacramento River down into the Central Valley and south to LA. Much of California's agricultural and municipal water comes from the Delta.

We have diverted water from the Delta for much of the last century. If we draw off too much water, however, we reduce the flow of freshwater out to the ocean which can cause saltwater intrusion. Too great an intrusion could permanently affect soil fertility, as well as hurting the quality of both agricultural and drinking water.

It is therefore a balance, as we draw on water from the Delta, to provide as much water as possible to CA's thirsty inhabitants (especially at times of drought) while at the same time ensuring that we don't overdraw and destroy the delicate Delta ecosystem. It provides the state with a critical resource - fresh water - and we need to be careful in our management of it, lest we destroy the health of that resource for future generations. A saline intrusion far up the river could leave the Delta's banks infertile, destroying the agricultural and ecological communities along them, thus reducing the river's ability to regulate flooding and water quality. The river is a living ecosystem, and the function it provides for us relies on its components being intact.

To this end, the protection of the controversial Delta smelt (a tiny fish species listed as Endangered) is important because it is considered an indicator for water quality in the Delta, a "canary in the coal mine" that alerts us if the Delta's waters are becoming too low-quality or too saline. So as long as the Delta smelt are present, water quality is good enough for agricultural and city use. THIS IS WHY WE ARE UPHOLDING THE ENDANGERED SPECIES PROTECTION ACT IN CALIFORNIA. It is for the long-term preservation of a fragile yet much-modified ecosystem that provides much of California with its water. Suspending the act and sacrificing the Delta smelt will only result in the loss of the Delta, and a future with even less water security than we have now.

Seriously, Nunes. This issue is just like DUH. Just because you won't have to worry about votes in the next generation when you're dead doesn't mean you shouldn't give a half of a rat's ass about their rights to our ecosystem and water, too.

What a plum. Seriously. I bet he's filling up his swimming pool right now.


In more or less the same vein (but slightly less polarized, hopefully?), I wrote a piece outlining the various pressures and players in the California drought at Hawkmoth Magazine in our spring issue: check it out here.

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