Viewpoints: Hetch Hetchy lawsuit a reminder on species law

No lasting solution to the decline of endangered species can be found until all the causes are fully understood and addressed. And no California water project, or water users, can be exempt from the sacrifices that protecting species sometimes requires.

That’s why the Center for Environmental Science, Accuracy and Reliability was forced to sue the National Park Service, demanding that the Hetch Hetchy Project comply with the Endangered Species Act just as other California water projects do.

The act requires that all federal agencies, without exception, take steps to ensure that their actions do no harm to the at-risk species they’re charged with protecting. In the case of Hetch Hetchy, it’s the National Park Service that has a duty to consult with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service if project operations could jeopardize the continued existence of protected species or their habitat.

Yet Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell has for some reason long ignored that provision of law, by failing to consider Hetch Hetchy’s contribution to the decline of these species. The center brought this suit reluctantly, only after the secretary ignored our request that she fulfill her obligations. That left us little choice but to go forward, in hope that the courts will remind the secretary that the endangered species law applies to everyone.

That means we all participate in a national goal of preserving the ecological richness of our country. And a burden shared is a burden lightened. Cities and water districts across California are contributing to the conservation of these endangered species through significant cutbacks. The resulting economic impacts have been severe. Farmers are losing every drop of water behind the dams they paid for; orchards are dying; everyone’s food bills are increasing.

But Hetch Hetchy, which diverts and stores water for use by San Franciscans, isn’t being held to the same standard as projects serving the other 22 million people in the state. Bay Area water users have been getting a pass, in short, while the rest of the state’s water users – urban, suburban and rural – have subsidized the resulting environmental damage.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has determined that the species affected by the diversions at Hetch Hetchy are in danger of extinction. And by not consulting with the service, as required, the National Park Service could very well jeopardize their continued existence. This means the sacrifices made by every other California water user to protect at-risk species are undermined and made even more difficult.

This suit simply aims to ensure that all Californians are a part of the solution. The secretary can resolve this matter by simply directing the park service to comply with the Endangered Species Act and ensure the flows they authorize out of Hetch Hetchy Reservoir are subject to consultation.

While some may question the center’s motives, we have been consistent in our mission to ensure enforcement of the endangered species law using the best data available. Sometimes that has led us to urge the delisting of a species; other times, we’ve fought for stronger protections. We’re driven by data, not dogma, because most of the controversies stem from politicized decision-making or the use of flawed or skewed science.

The Endangered Species Act is a powerful tool for conservation. But for it to be effective, we cannot implement it piecemeal. Our goal with this suit isn’t to further muddy the waters, but to enforce the law. Until we pursue application of the law rigorously, it cannot be successful.