This month, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a ruling that limits water withdrawals from sensitive ecosystems in Northern California. The Court rejected a new challenge by a consortium of California farmers and local water management agencies hoping to import more water from an area that serves as home to the critically endangered Delta Smelt Fish. Siting the Endangered Species Act, this latest ruling reinforces which side the federal government is on when it comes to wildlife conservation.
The foundation for the government’s case came from a 2008 report by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The report recommend reductions in water exports to Southern California in an effort to restore the habitat of the delta smelt fish, native only to wetlands north of San Francisco.[ii] In March, 2014 the government ruled in favor of the report’s recommendation – limiting water exports from the area. Less than a year later, an appeal was made on the grounds that federal water management guidelines, as outlined by the report, were “arbitrary and capricious”. The ruling this month by the U.S. Supreme Court sides with the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals – leaving the government’s position unchanged.
The basis of the ruling stems from the Endangered Species Act requiring the federal government to avoid any action that can potentially jeopardize a protected species. The finger-sized Delta Smelt is one of best indicators of environmental condition in the San Francisco Bay-Delta, an ecological haven for hundreds of other species as well as a major hub for California’s water system.[iii] Increased water diversion, non-native species, and saturated levels of herbicides and pesticides have left this once abundant species, which serves a crucial role in the food chain, in critical condition.
It goes without saying, this is a major win for the Smelt and any species on the verge of endangerment. It is also evident by this ruling that the federal government is willing to side with conservation of natural resources over increased human water needs. The court’s decision will undoubtedly force water managers to develop new, innovative ways of meeting increasing public water demands, as opposed to diverting more water from adjacent watersheds.