March 2017

California’s ongoing torrent of wet weather has revealed weaknesses in Northern California’s dams and levees. The threat of catastrophic flooding from the damaged Oroville Dam spillway recently forced the emergency evacuation of 200,000 people. Northern California families were forced to flee with no advanced warning.

The Brown Administration and the Department of Water Recourses have been working around the clock to protect public safety and cope with a full reservoir and shaky levees in anticipation of more storms and spring and summer run-off.

While the Trump administration has been cooperating with California during this time of crisis, one federal agency seems to have missed the urgent directive to protect public safety. We’re not surprised since the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has been putting the needs of fish before the needs of people for some time. During this time of crisis, NFMS felt compelled to send a threatening letter to state officials to “minimize the effects” to fish and habitat downstream, including conducting the emergency repair work only at night. The callous disregard for public safety is astonishing.

A response letter from state water leaders refers to NMFS as an agency “that is tone deaf to anything other than a myopic protection of species by any means necessary without regard for human impact.” Apparently, NMFS failed to notice the steps taken by state wildlife officials to protect the environment and rescue stranded fish while aptly putting human health and safety first.

Unfortunately, the NMFS letter is a further illustration of the agency’s inability to work cooperatively with the state of California to balance water supply needs for residents and the environment. The agency’s policies have greatly exacerbated drought impacts on the state by imposing additional and ineffective water supply restrictions to protect fish. Now that the drought is ending, NMFS regulators are throwing up roadblocks to public protection and long-term solutions.

As we move beyond this winter and the challenges it has presented, it will be important for state and federal policymakers to seek a better balance of the need to protect fish and the needs of all Californians. California has a great deal of work to do on water supply, conveyance and flood protection. With that in mind, it will be critical to have all state and federal agencies aligned, working together, and not ignoring the needs of residents and the state’s economy.