New Federal Biological Opinions Utilize the Latest Science to Benefit Fish and Other Water Users

One thing all Californians know for certain is that our current system of managing water isn’t working for anyone.

Over the past decade, struggling fish populations have continued to decline, farms have been forced to fallow land, and cities and towns face ever-tightening restrictions.

Meanwhile, endless lawsuits tie up progress in court, further locking our failing system into place.

In an effort to break the policy logjam, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has recently updated federal biological opinions (BiOps) which are rules that exist to protect endangered, and  threatened species in the San Francisco Bay-Delta region while also meeting the water supply needs of Californian’s farms, businesses and our people.

Let’s be clear – because the old rules are based on science that is now over a decade old, these failed rules badly needed updating. We must act now to adopt smart solutions, and modern science to prepare for our changing world.

It’s past time to update our policies and take actions that can produce a more secure water future for all Californians.

Here are a just a few reasons we should all welcome this policy update:

Embraces modern science and provides the ability to continuously update the science and use it to adapt rules as necessary

Science has been steadily progressing while the old rules were in effect. However, the process to incorporate new findings into existing rules simply didn’t exist. The new BiOps not only incorporate 10 years of study, they put in place adaptive management to help keep the rules up to date as we go. To keep us from once again letting rules get outdated while struggling species suffer, the new Biological Opinions allow for ongoing scientific review as well as independent evaluation by outside experts.

Adopts smart, data-based tools to help struggling species, using real-time monitoring rather than an arbitrary calendar date

Would you rather have a doctor treat you for symptoms they see or provide medication simply because the calendar says it’s flu season. Exactly.

Under the old rules, a calendar dictated when water was moved through the system or withheld. This rigid, arbitrary approach that often ignored what was actually happening in California’s delta. Under the new BiOps, scientists will monitor conditions, and officials must account for fish needs in real-time and base pumping decisions on the actual conditions witnessed. Plus, there is a commitment to reduce pumping when sensitive species are present. We believe this new approach will provide better protection for fish and a is part of a broader strategy to improve their chance of a full recovery.


Pays for new tools to help fish thrive

One of the things science has taught us over the last decade is that water is just one of many factors impacting the health of fish populations. Improving habitat, increasing food supply, and enhancing predator control also play significant roles. 

Under the new biological opinions, $1.5 billion will be spent on fishery improvements that scientists have shown can benefit our native species. That includes investments in habitat, restored spawning grounds and side channels in rivers and streams that are important to the salmon life cycle. Other measures will be put in place specifically for Delta smelt.

Not only did the old rules provide none of this assistance, they were not even allowed to consider these critical factors.

In terms of water, the new rules will increase the amount of cold water stored behind Shasta Dam in order to maintain healthy temperatures for spawning salmon in times of drought.

Provides more supply to California’s water users AND better protects struggling fish

Opponents claim that the new rules are bad simply because they provide more water for farms, businesses, cities and town. But as with the existing BiOps, that is an outdated way of viewing the situation. Water supply in California does not have to be a zero-sum game. Thanks to improved science we have found better ways to protect fish while also providing additional supply to other water users. 

Why all Californians should care about these rules

Getting these rules right impacts the entire state. Water from the federally-run Central Valley Project delivers enough water to meet the needs of 1 million California households, over 3 million acres of some of the most productive farmland in the world and over a million-acre feet of water for fish and wildlife and their habitat, including state and federal wildlife refuges and wetlands. The State Water Project serves the water needs of 750,000 acres of productive farmland and the domestic water supply for two-thirds of all Californians.

Having the new rules in place will provide greater flexibility within the entire system, producing greater reliability of supply for all.

Where do we go from here?

As exciting and forward-looking as the new BiOps are, they are one piece of a very complicated water puzzle. Federal, state and local governments must continue to work with all water users to bring our entire water management system up to date.

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