Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Something Fishy This Way Comes

Call it "the Malkin Effect."

The American Contrarian got more traffic than normal recently -- much more -- thanks to the mention on Michelle Malkin's blog of a post I did about that scourge called The Endangered Species Act (thanks, Michelle). I enjoyed the lively exchanges that resulted.

What brings me back to the topic today is this excellent editorial in the Wall Street Journal on the drought California is suffering not just for a lack of rain, but because of water restrictions mandated by the ESA. The delta smelt case was mentioned by a number of those who responded to my post on the misuses and abuses of the ESA. The Journal does an excellent job of telling the story, for those still unfamiliar with it.

California's Man-Made Drought
The green war against San Joaquin Valley farmers.

California has a new endangered species on its hands in the San Joaquin Valley—farmers. Thanks to environmental regulations designed to protect the likes of the three-inch long delta smelt, one of America's premier agricultural regions is suffering in a drought made worse by federal regulations.

The state's water emergency is unfolding thanks to the latest mishandling of the Endangered Species Act. Last December, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued what is known as a "biological opinion" imposing water reductions on the San Joaquin Valley and environs to safeguard the federally protected hypomesus transpacificus, a.k.a., the delta smelt. As a result, tens of billions of gallons of water from mountains east and north of Sacramento have been channelled away from farmers and into the ocean, leaving hundreds of thousands of acres of arable land fallow or scorched.

For this, Californians can thank the usual environmental suspects, er, lawyers. Last year's government ruling was the result of a 2006 lawsuit filed by the Natural Resources Defense Council and other outfits objecting to increased water pumping in the smelt vicinity. In June, things got even dustier when the National Marine Fisheries Service concluded that local salmon and steelhead also needed to be defended from the valley's water pumps. Those additional restrictions will begin to effect pumping operations next year.

The result has already been devastating for the state's farm economy. In the inland areas affected by the court-ordered water restrictions, the jobless rate has hit 14.3%, with some farming towns like Mendota seeing unemployment numbers near 40%. Statewide, the rate reached 11.6% in July, higher than it has been in 30 years. In August, 50 mayors from the San Joaquin Valley signed a letter asking President Obama to observe the impact of the draconian water rules firsthand.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has said that he "doesn't have the authority to turn on the pumps" that would supply the delta with water, or "otherwise, they would be on." He did, however, have the ability to request intervention from the Department of Interior. Under a provision added to the Endangered Species Act in 1978 after the snail darter fiasco, a panel of seven cabinet officials known as a "God Squad" is able to intercede in economic emergencies, such as the one now parching California farmers. Despite a petition with more than 12,000 signers, Mr. Schwarzenegger has refused that remedy.

The issue now turns to the Obama Administration and the courts, though the farmers have so far found scant hope for relief from the White House. In June, the Administration denied the governor's request to designate California a federal disaster area as a result of the drought conditions, which U.S. Drought Monitor currently lists as a "severe drought" in 43% of the state. Doing so would force the Administration to acknowledge awkward questions about the role its own environmental policies have played in scorching the Earth.

As the crisis has deepened, the political stakes have risen as well. In late August, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack came to the devastated valley to meet with farmers and community leaders. Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein has pledged to press the issue with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. "There are 30 lawsuits on the biological opinions and two separate opinions, one for the smelt and one for the salmon," Ms. Feinstein said, "The rules need to be reconsidered."

The Pacific Legal Foundation has filed a lawsuit on behalf of three farmers in the valley, calling the federal regulations "immoral and unconstitutional." Because the delta smelt is only found in California, the Foundation says, it does not fall under the regulatory powers provided by the Constitution's Commerce Clause. On a statutory basis, the Fish and Wildlife Service also neglected to appropriately consider the economic devastation the pumping restrictions would bring.

Things in California may have to get so bad that they endanger Democratic Congressional incumbents before Washington wakes up, but it doesn't have to be that way. Mr. Salazar has said that convening the God Squad would be "admitting failure" in the effort to save the smelt under the Endangered Species Act. Maybe so, but the livelihoods of tens of thousands of humans are also at stake. If the Obama Administration wants to help, it can take up Governor Schwarzenegger's request that it revisit the two biological opinions that are hanging farmers and farm workers out to dry.

There were many interesting and informative (and a few very funny) responses to my "Animal Crackers" post, but one stands out. It came from Dr. Rob Roy Ramey, a great conservation biologist and true friend to endangered species who has paid a heavy price for asking hard questions about how the ESA functions, about the quality of science underpinning it, about whether the federal government is allocating limited conservation resources appropriately. For daring to ask these questions, Ramey became a target of the Eco-Inquisition -- the unholy alliance of professional alarmists, advocacy scientists and power-hungry bureaucrats that attempts to discredit, intimidate and silence anyone who challenges eco-orthodoxy on climate change, endangered species, etc. But in Ramey the green goon squad picked on the wrong guy, since he has the credentials, courage and strength of character to stand his ground.

Rob became a hero of mine for exposing the Preble's meadow jumping mouse hoax -- work that made him the target of the Eco-Inquisition. But that's a topic for another day.

Here's what he had to say:

Dr. Rob Roy Ramey said...

The ESA listing "surge" has begun. Next, the US Fish and Wildlife Service will be requesting more funding for their endangered species program.

What we will not see, is any objective prioritization of conservation effort (money) on endangered "species" at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In other words: "Just send money and skip the accountability part." This absence of prioritization on endangered "species" is exactly what shortchanges conservation of bona-fide species that are highly unique and highly endangered. The United States allocates the majority of its endangered species budget to nondistinct but presumably threatened or endangered populations of common species (listed as Subspecies, Distinct Vertebrate Population Segments (DPS), or Evolutionary Significant Units (ESU)).

It is clear, however, that this conservation approach comes at the expense of many “full” species that are highly unique and that are far more endangered. Fully one-fifth of ESA-listed “species” are really subspecies or DPSs/ESUs, and these tend to be the most controversial and costly to "protect". The current proposal illustrates a similar lack of ESA prioritization: allocating listing effort to speciose taxa (many species in a genus) rather than highly unique taxa (one or few species in a genus), contrary to the 1982 amendments to the ESA. The proposal includes six species of milkvetch (genus Astragalus). Twenty-one species and subspecies of milkvetch are already listed in the west as threatened or endangered. There are a total of 614 species and subspecies of milkvetch listed on Natureserve.

Mr. Salazar, please take note."

Keep up the good fight, Rob.

And thank you for weighing in.

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