The impacts of California’s ongoing extreme drought are felt by everyone in the state. Some in Congress have proposed weakening environmental protections that would divert more of the water flowing to the San Francisco Bay. That would have serious implications for the largest estuary on the Pacific coast of North and South America and the fish, wildlife and people who rely on this unique ecosystem.
In comparable estuaries, like the Chesapeake Bay, people are not diverting anywhere close to 50 percent of the water nature supplies. The best available science shows that the health of rivers is degraded when more than 20 percent of their water is diverted.
Increasing water diversions can only make things worse. If we compound the decades-long man-made drought and the natural drought by diverting even more water, we’re increasing the likelihood of multiple extinctions. That’s what laws like the Endangered Species Act are intended to prevent.
Some claim these laws are not effective because target species have not recovered. But the protections are intended only to prevent collapse and extinction, not to produce thriving ecosystems.
The future of our estuary is being discussed now as Congress considers drought legislation. Elected officials should look to the best available science when making decisions. Recent court decisions support the scientific basis for ecosystem protections that prevent even more dramatic reductions in flows to the bay.
Innovative approaches that reduce the impact of the drought on cities and farms are needed and possible. Our focus should be on improving how we use our limited water supply, not on shortsighted policies that divert even more water from the bay at the expense of native fish and ecosystems and those who depend upon them for their livelihood.
Jeanette Howard, PhD, is the lead scientist, freshwater, for The Nature Conservancy. Jon Rosenfield, PhD, is the conservation biologist for The Bay Institute. They wrote this for this newspaper.