There Is No Quick-fix for California's Drought

Short-term solutions could have long-term impacts

Despite recent rain, California is still in the midst of an historic drought. The past year has been the state's driest on record since 1895. We have seen a lot of news coverage on how the lack of rain and snowfall over the last three years is impacting farmers, ranchers, fishermen and small communities. Even large cities are suffering. But we have heard less about how the drought is affecting the birds, fish and other wildlife that depend on California's natural resources just as much as we do.

As the drought continues, it is getting easier to imagine the devastating future in store for the state if we don't consider a comprehensive strategy--one that includes wildlife--when seeking solutions to the water shortage. The decisions that we make today about managing the state's remaining water supplies for the short-term will continue to impact those birds, fish and other species as well as people and the economy for years to come.

California has already lost 90% of its wetlands to development. These kinds of wetlands are essential to migratory birds flying between South America and Canada and Alaska; they depend on the sites to "refuel" during their long, arduous flights to and from breeding and nesting grounds. With fewer places to stopover, and remaining sites drying up due to drought, a potential disaster looms. What does this part of the not-so-distant future's picture look like? Scores of birds dying all over the state because fewer and fewer can survive the journey, and poor health and disease from crowding in remaining wetlands afflicting many others.

The outlook is even bleaker for California's fish populations, which have already faced crippling impacts from dam building, river and stream diversions, pollution, invasive species and other afflictive human activities. Even now, some areas, like the Bay-Delta, face continuous drought even when not in a "drought year," and perhaps worse still, the state's famous salmon runs are now at high-risk. In fact, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife warned that Central Coast coho salmon could go extinct this year if they cannot reach spawning grounds.

Many are looking for a quick-fix and a scapegoat to blame. California Representative Valadao recently introduced legislation that would trample environmental protections for our rivers, watersheds and endangered species, blaming these protections for the drought. He should know better; you cannot squeeze water out of a stone. Environmental protections are not holding back any water; there simply isn't any to be had. Laws like the one just proposed would only further harm California as the state works hard to plan recovery and relief efforts. Senators Boxer and Feinstein have recently introduced a much better bill to the California Senate, though it too, still needs clarification where environmental protections are concerned. And, though President Obama recently delivered a sizeable aid package to assist drought relief for some of California's communities, none of those funds were allocated to help fish, wildlife and fishing communities.

The greatest irony here is that, in ignoring the needs of wildlife during this time of crisis, we are hurting ourselves even more. California's salmon industry, for example, has a value of $1.4 billion, annually, and provides tens of thousands of jobs throughout the state. A crash in the industry due to a collapse in the salmon population could devastate that sector of California's economy for years. Likewise, maintaining those critical stopover areas for migrating birds protects people as well, as many of those same areas provide water that, under normal circumstances, is regularly diverted at balanced levels to be used for a host of human activities. Diverting away more water than the wetlands can handle for short-term benefit will hurt more than the birds in the long run.

We mustn't settle for "quick-fix" solutions to California's serious drought problems. Instead, we must think critically about how the actions we take now can help us far into the future. California legislators and city and community council members should focus on increasing budgets for water conservation and water recycling; develop programs for storm water re-use; and incentivize demand and water waste reduction. This isn't the last drought that we will see, and if we do not prepare adequately with long-term solutions, future conditions will only be worse.