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California Salmon, Free Willy and The God Squad

Earthjustice was thrilled this month when a strong new set of rules was issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service to protect California’s endangered salmon species. We've working to protect California salmon since the 1980s and the new biological opinion is a huge step in the right direction.

But some people just hate good news about the environment.

The conservative, anti-environmental operation known as the Pacific Legal Foundation is pushing Governor Schwarzenegger to ask Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to remove protections of California's native fish species by calling out the "God Squad." The God Squad (officially the Endangered Species Committee) is a rarely used provision of the Endangered Species Act that allows species protections to be overridden by a government panel that would essentially play God and exterminate a species in the name of economic necessity.

PLF's clients, big agricultural interests in California's San Joaquin Valley, have always enjoyed taxpayer-subsidized water to grow thirsty, government subsidized crops in this dry region, including cotton, alfalfa, and most recently almonds. The goal is to end all restrictions on water exports from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta regardless of environmental harm...

But if PLF really wants to go down this road, the federal government might be required to call not one, but a half dozen separate God Squads.

Why so many?

Thanks to the hard work of groups like Earthjustice and NRDC, representing fishing communities and conservation groups trying to restore the Delta, excessive water exports are now understood to impact not only the delta smelt, but also three imperiled Central Valley salmon and steelhead species, green sturgeon, and, most recently, killer whales in the Pacific, which depend on salmon as food.

When the fight becomes subsidized water and crops for Westlands Water District vs. Free Willy, guess who the American people are going to back?

The Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973 with overwhelming bipartisan support from Congress and signed into law by Richard Nixon—hardly a radical environmentalist. The mission of the law remains very popular among the American people. The recent delisting of the bald eagle proves this law works when fully enforced.

The American public does not support wiping out species because commercial enterprises demand more government handouts. This much is clear.

But this is not simply Big Ag versus some species. Due the unprecedented closure of the commercial salmon fishing season, the wasteful water practices of Westlands and others have put hundreds of fishermen out of work for two years now. This has taken regional jobs and a healthy food source from people all across this country.

What has also been made clear through recent court decisions and scientific studies is that the West Coast's largest estuary and the species and communities that depend on a healthy Delta are seriously imperiled by overpumping.

William K. Reilly, a member of the Governor's Delta Vision Blue Ribbon Task Force and EPA administrator under the first President Bush, recently wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle that, "The delta water's average annual flow is overcommitted to users by more than eight times." Yet California's water agency, under Schwarzenegger, has continued to dish out more and more water that doesn't exist in an effort to meet a demand that takes this precious resource for granted.

Big Ag must now learn to do more with less. The days of copious taxpayer-subsidized water exports from the Delta are coming to an end. And the idea of killing off numerous native fish species, decimating Northern California fishing communities, and turning the Delta into a fetid swamp is simply not allowed under federal law.

Calling six God Squads will not fix the problems that are facing California agriculture, and PLF knows that such efforts would be quixotic at best.

Only living within the ecological limits of what the Delta can stand will we be able to restore the Delta to health. A study done nearly 25 years ago found that 30 percent is the maximum amount of water that can be taken from an estuary that remains healthy. Today, in some years, we are exporting at levels closer to 50 percent. Getting water exports down below this ecological limit through water conservation, and planting appropriate crops is where our leaders should be focusing their efforts.

Stamping feet in anger and playing God will not fix the problem.

Tags:  Water