The Central Valley was transformed from a semi-arid, desert-like region to the agricultural wonder it is today by simply adding water. The State Water Project, operated by the Department of Water Resources, provides water to more than 23 million Californians and more than 750,000 acres of the nation’s most productive agricultural land.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger toured the Central Valley this month, calling for billions in badly needed funding for more dams, more water storage and improvements to the Delta. The governor noted that “as the nation’s largest single source of drinking water, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta supplies 25 million people in California, which is two-thirds of the population, with water. … The Delta is the lifeblood of our $32 billion agriculture industry, irrigating millions of acres of highly productive farmland.”
However, one judge has taken steps to change all that with the stroke of a pen. In ruling on a lawsuit over “endangered” fish sometimes caught in the pumping mechanism at the Harvey O. Banks Pumping Plant near Tracy, Alameda County Judge Frank Roesch chose to rule on a semantic technicality, making demands that will shut down the flow of water through the Central Valley within 60 days.
The judge’s ruling highlights the underlying problem that the state faces in providing water to our vast population and teeming economy. We can spend billions on water infrastructure projects, but if we haven’t addressed the consequences of the California Environmental Quality Act along with the many endangered species laws and regulatory hurdles to the storage and transfer of water in our state, those efforts will be futile. The lawsuit and the judge’s decision highlight the ultimate trade-off between extreme environmental measures and everyday life in California. The conflict is not new. This battle of priorities has served to stifle agricultural production and economic growth in our state for several decades.
The Banks Pumping Plant is the very heart of the State Water Project, pumping our state’s lifeblood in canals to cities in the Bay Area, farms in the Central Valley and all of Southern California. Without this precious water, farming, business and daily life in California will grind to a halt.
The issue that Roesch ruled on was whether the Department of Water Resources has obtained an official permit known as a “take” permit for the protected fish that are sometimes swallowed by the pumps. Take permits are usually required by private property owners, corporations or local government projects where protected species are occasionally killed in the normal course of business. The operation of the Banks Pumping Plant is already under state and federal environmental regulations. The Department of Water Resources has also entered into agreements with state and federal agencies to provide a number of fishery protections, many of those agreements voluntarily.
In short, the loss of occasional protected fish is not news, and the authorities have been working closely with the Department of Water Resources to monitor these accidental losses. In fact, the court did not find that the pumping plant was causing any harm. The only transgression is that the Department of Water Resources was not holding one kind of permit.
Both the Department of Water Resources and the Department of Fish and Game agree that 60 days is not enough time to process the permit that the judge is looking for. In the lawsuit, no one was able to demonstrate any harm to California’s fish populations, yet the harm to our state’s economy, jobs and way of life will be severe.
Clearly, the governor understands the critical need to keep water flowing across the Central Valley, and therefore the seriousness of this misguided court decision. As California’s head of state, he has the ability to direct both the Departments of Water Resources and Fish and Game to take immediate steps toward a solution. One proposal is for Fish and Game to issue a temporary permit for the entire State Water Project to solve this and any other similar legal conflicts that could erupt in the immediate future.
Resolving the Banks Pumping Plant case is necessary, but it ultimately will not solve the larger problem. This case is a wake-up call for serious reform of the California Environmental Quality Act and endangered species laws with respect to the transport and storage of our state’s lifeblood. Without sufficient water, we might as well hang a “Closed for Business” sign at California’s borders.
Roy Ashburn, R-Bakersfield, represents Tulare, Kern, Inyo and San Bernardino counties in the state Senate.