Drought isn’t an excuse to threaten wildlife

Birds forage in a California rice field in September. With the drought, even some wildlife refuges don’t have enough water.
Birds forage in a California rice field in September. With the drought, even some wildlife refuges don’t have enough water. Sacramento Bee file

After four years of drought, California is thirsty, and concerned lawmakers want to help.

Last month, Sen. Dianne Feinstein announced plans to include a California water bill in the spending package expected to pass Congress before the year’s end. The bill is an opportunity to support smart water solutions such as wastewater recycling, stormwater capture and water-use efficiency that can help our farms, cities and ecosystems.

Other legislators, however, have tried to capitalize on the drought to grab more water for agribusinesses in the Central Valley, while undermining bedrock environmental laws. Rep. David Valadao’s Western Water and American Food Security Act is a prime example.

The bill from Valadao, R-Hanford, would override Endangered Species Act protections for imperiled native salmon runs, increasing the risk of extinctions among fish species that have suffered through four dry years. It could also cut back water to wildlife refuges so that some might receive barely a trickle and others nothing at all, even during times of critical need.

Feinstein has indicated that legislation should not harm wildlife refuges in California. In November, she signed a letter with 24 Senate colleagues urging President Barack Obama to oppose any provisions that would undermine Endangered Species Act protections.

However, if Congress passes something like the Valadao bill, the fishing industry and California’s salmon, migratory birds and other species that depend on scarce wetlands could be in further danger.

The Central Valley was once a beautiful, sprawling network of freshwater wetlands that supported tens of millions of migratory birds and a diversity of other wildlife. Over time, urban and agricultural development destroyed more than 90 percent of these wetlands.

Still, Central Valley wetlands support about 60 percent of the Pacific flyway’s waterfowl.

Of the few wetlands that remain, some of the most important and productive lands are safeguarded in wildlife refuges that rely on water deliveries from the federal government. These wildlife refuges are critical to the millions of birds that migrate along the Pacific flyway each year and to iconic species like the bald eagle.

Remember, water shortages are caused by droughts – not by the small amount of water used by refuges and wildlife.

As negotiations over California drought legislation continue in Congress, we are counting on Feinstein and Sen. Barbara Boxer to stand up to those who want to threaten the health of our rivers and wildlife refuges, and the creatures that depend on them.

Sacrificing our environment won’t make it rain. It will, however, undermine the natural heritage that all Californians treasure.

Rachel Zwillinger is water policy adviser for Defenders of Wildlife’s California Program. She can be contacted at