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ESA paradigm puts Central Valley farms and ranchers at risk

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Last week, I testified before the U.S. House of Representative’s Endangered Species Act (ESA) Working Group on how the performance of the ESA, its impact to Western farmers and ranchers, and options to improve and modernize this 40-year old law.

The House of Representatives, whose members represent a broad geographic range, in early May created the ESA Working Group to examine the legislation, which was last reauthorized in 1988. Lead by House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) and Western Caucus Co-Chair Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.), the Working Group has had a series of forums and hearings to gather input on how ESA is working, how it could be updated, and how to boost its effectiveness for both people and species.

As we discuss these matters in Washington, D.C., farmers and ranchers in California’s San Joaquin Valley are seriously worried about their future. The current implementation of ESA has redirected once-reliable water supplies to the perceived needs of fish protected by the legislation. The loss of that water and resulting loss of productive farm land is already chipping away at rural communities on the west side of the Valley—schools are closing, vendors are going broke, and families and friends are fighting as the law creates “haves” and “have nots.” Next year, those communities could be permanently crippled if the current ESA-driven management style in the Bay-Delta does not change in a way that injects common-sense discretion into the decision-making process.

The Family Farm Alliance, the organization for which I work, has long worked with federal agencies, others in the regulated community, the House Natural Resources Committee and others in Congress to focus attention on the impact of ESA-related litigation and settlement agreements. Alliance members are greatly concerned that hundreds of ESA lawsuits have been filed over the past five years, and that tens of millions of dollars have been awarded in taxpayer funded attorneys’ fees. This takes time and resources away from real species recovery efforts. One of our biggest concerns is that the current Administration will be making listing decisions on nearly 800 species by 2016, including 160 this year, as a result of settlement agreements that appear to have been negotiated behind closed doors.

I agree the ESA needs to be improved, but, that is way easier said than done. Many of us in Western water have long argued that the ESA should be modernized and applied in a way that fosters collaboration and efficiency of program delivery in an incentive-driven manner.

However, getting Congress and the President of the United States to amend the ESA in a timely way is another challenge altogether. In 2011, a study was commissioned by the Endangered Species Coalition and conducted by Harris Interactive. Overall, the Harris poll showed strong American support—84%--for the ESA; 90% of those polled believed the ESA has helped hundreds of species recover from the brink of extinction. This is what the American public and many of their elected officials believe. That sentiment makes it very difficult for Congress to make even modest changes to this law, even though the ESA has just a 1% success rate when it comes to actually recovering species.

So the deliberate, thoughtful approach the Working Group is taking on this matter is encouraging. It is the right way to go. Over half of the Working Group representatives hail from the West, the area where rural communities likely suffer the most from ESA-driven litigation. However, including representatives from eastern and Midwestern states is a smart move, one that will provide increased awareness and better education to other parts of the country, where residents likely share the sentiments expressed in the Harris Poll.

The ESA can play an important role in species protection, but it can only do so successfully with broad input and cooperation. Any updates to the ESA must help recover and seek to remove species from the list and encourage public engagement.

California’s San JoaquinValley is facing a dire situation now, and faces a potential disaster next year. With normal hydrology this winter, and with minimal to moderate water being dedicated to ESA-“protected” fish, water managers are expecting a 0-10% water allocation for 2014 under the existing ESA paradigm imposed on California’s Bay-Delta. That translates to 300,000-500,000 acres of prime Central Valley Project irrigated land—the fruit and vegetable basket of America—laying fallow next year. Are we so blind that we actually think depression, food shortages, mass unemployment, and true hardship and failure cannot happen again? Maybe we should ask our grandparents and parents—who had the foresight to build the infrastructure on which our prosperity and our ability to produce food for an exploding global population depends—whether these costs are justified in light of the little benefit derived from the actions that impose them.

The ESA is an outdated law that is clearly not working. I am hopeful that the Working Group will provide the right platform to coordinate the efforts of a broad-ranging group of elected officials and stakeholders to make the ESA work. It needs to be more about incentives and collaboration and less about litigation and regulation.

Dan Keppen Dan Keppen (
Executive Director, Family Farm Alliance

View more posts by Dan Keppen

The views and opinions expressed in AgChllenge2050 blog posts are solely the opinions of the authors, and not those of Farm Foundation, NFP.