Brigid McCormack: Any water bond should have room for migratory birds

May 1, 2014 

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Geese rest on a pond at the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge near Vernalis in Stanislaus County.

JOAN BARNETT LEE — Modesto Bee file

As umbrellas popped open around California in recent months, you could almost feel the tension ease. Californians were becoming so desperate about the drought that they could be forgiven for allowing themselves to think things were on the upswing – that farmers would have enough water, communities could get drinking water, vital habitat would be provided for birds and other wildlife, and that as a bonus, maybe we’d save our ski season.

Those hopes were premature. Experts tell us our snowpack is still at less than 50 percent of normal and that our lakes, rivers and reservoirs are at the lowest levels in decades. The California Department of Water Resources Drought Operations Plan indicates this is going to be a painful summer.

Still, it’s important to remember that we won’t be in crisis mode forever. Perhaps, as some have predicted, an El Nino winter could pull us out of it. Or this drought could presage the more extreme weather events that are coming to California via climate change. Either way, the crisis we’re facing now will evolve into a future California, one we can’t completely predict, but one we can influence. If we are complacent, that future will be dictated to us.

California’s Central Valley can be an amazing place where a great confluence of resources converge to support a thriving agricultural economy, healthy communities, and precious natural habitat for birds and wildlife.

A drought relief bill that passed out of the House of Representatives earlier this year visualizes a far different Central Valley. This is one where some farms win, but where the San Joaquin River is a sandbox, endangered species are gone forever, fisheries have collapsed and neighbors are pitted against neighbors.

HR 3964 would do irreparable damage to habitat for birds and other wildlife by suspending the 2009 San Joaquin River Restoration Settlement Act, permanently overriding Endangered Species Act protections and implementing a number of shortsighted water policies that fly in the face of earlier agreements. As written, this legislation is going nowhere. But we’re seeing some of its worst provisions reappearing in new legislation, along with cuts in spending for drought relief projects.

Millions upon millions of migratory birds rely on the Central Valley as a vital point on the Pacific Flyway. Acknowledging the massive impacts to wildlife from federal and state irrigation projects, Congress in 1992 passed the Central Valley Project Improvement Act to support habitat for birds, fish and other wildlife. This legislation mandated minimum water allocations to the network of federal wildlife refuges, state wildlife areas and private wetlands in the Central Valley. This is a promise we need to keep.

In many ways, the state’s water future will be determined in the water bond that will be put before the voters in November. At the moment there at least 10 different bond bills being debated in Sacramento. Only some would require the state to meet its obligations to the refuges, providing long-lasting ecological benefits at a minimal cost of water. If the final bond doesn’t have that requirement, it could create an ecological disaster.

Though experts say our drought is unprecedented in scale, there are lessons to learn from California’s last great drought in 1976-77. While that drought took a serious toll on California’s economy, we learned a lot about water conservation and improved our ability to live and thrive in drier conditions. In short, we found ways to adapt.

This drought is scary in that it’s difficult to know when, or even if, the water will come back. But rather than wreck our future with ill-considered legislation, it makes more sense to plan for the California in which we want to live.

Together, we can create policies that provide the water needed for health and human safety, agriculture and wildlife.

McCormack is executive director of Audubon California.

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