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Santa Ana sucker

The Hill, May 2, 2011

Don't Be a Sucker for ESA Scare Tactics
By Adam Lazar and Ileene Anderson

This opinion piece was written in response to "Santa Ana Sucker: Balancing Conservation Efforts" by Doug Headrick, published on April 29, 2011.

Doug Headrick’s latest attack on the Endangered Species Act sounds familiar. The recent emergency spending bill for the U.S. government included a provision that stripped Endangered Species Act protections from wolves in two states, while a new bill from Rep. Jim Costa (D-Calif.) would override protections for the entire San Francisco-San Joaquin Bay Delta. Asking politicians to choose which species are protected is a dangerous game. In the case of the sucker, such intervention is also utterly unwarranted. It is curious that Headrick’s reply does not once mention California’s State Water Project, when his previous piece (“Poor Oversight Leaves California Dry”) blamed the Santa Ana sucker for reduced deliveries in the SWP. After the Center for Biological Diversity explained that there is absolutely no connection between the State Water Project and the sucker (“Don’t Blame the Santa Ana Sucker”) and that project deliveries are at an all-time high, Headrick now returns with another dubious attack in which the SWP is nowhere to be found. Clearly Headrick is shifting targets in search of whatever scare tactic will rile up Congress enough to take it out on the Endangered Species Act. 

While last time Headrick incited fear over the State Water Project, he now raises the specter of reduced water supplies from the Santa Ana River. At least this time Headrick identified the correct river—but he gets the science and the impacts completely wrong. 

In December 2010, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service restored critical habitat designations for the sucker to portions of the Santa Ana River and its tributaries, designations previously removed in 2005 under the Bush administration with encouragement from — you guessed it — Headrick’s employer, the San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District. Last December’s decision was not only based on the best available science, it was reverting back to a decision actually based on science, period, rather than political influence. Thus Headrick’s claim about bad science is precisely backward. 

Moreover, Headrick’s scare tactics are without basis in reality. To be clear, the 2010 revised habitat designation does not set limits on water deliveries, and notes a low likelihood of future restrictions. Thus, the decision finds the districts’ estimates of economic impacts to be greatly inflated.

These economic factors are nonetheless considered at length by the agency in its decision, but Headrick cannot point to any part of the Endangered Species Act that requires irrigation and development to be preferred over habitat protection. The argument assumes that economic impacts are more important than ecological benefits, when the whole point of the Endangered Species Act is to promote ecological benefits. If Headrick had his way, the result would be a new “Endangered Species Act Lite,” where only species that do not have an economic impact should be protected.

And once again, Headrick’s attack conveniently ignores the fact that the same flows that sustain the sucker also provide water to Orange County.  In other words, both humans and fish depend on these flows continuing — precisely the kind of balance Headrick claims to champion. Apparently, the abundant ecological benefits, and the very real economic impacts to downstream users, simply don’t matter.

Headrick’s water district is capable of preserving – or destroying – the very livelihood of the sucker and other wildlife that depend on the local water supply. Given such powers, the district has the option of either promoting species’ destruction or acting responsibly. Headrick treats this responsibility as a badge of good citizenship, but it’s really a basic principle of water management. And it is this basic principle that Headrick’s district is attempting to subvert.

Headrick doesn’t argue for balance, he argues for removing any semblance of balance, and allowing the water districts to wipe out these fish. Good conservation requires acting on good science. Reverting to the Bush administration’s practice of political meddling not only short-changes imperiled species, but does a disservice to us all.

Adam Lazar is a staff attorney and Ileene Anderson is a biologist for the Center for Biological Diversity, a national environmental group that advocates for endangered species and wild places.

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton