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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Pumping Up Controversy

Air Date: Week of

The San Joaquin delta in California. (Courtesy of U.S. Geological Survey)

Living on Earth host Steve Curwood talks with Tom Philps, an editorial writer for the Sacramento Bee, about a court battle that pits environmentalists and sports fishermen against the California Department of Water Resources. The dispute is over how to save struggling smelt and Chinook salmon populations while meeting massive human demands on the drinking water from the San Joaquin River.


CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. The San Joaquin River is the lifeblood for millions of Californians and millions of acres of farmland from the Bay Area south to Los Angeles. But the water from the San Joaquin doesn’t flow south on its own.

Massive pumps lift it out of engineered channels to get it to California farms and cities. And according to the California Sport Fishing Protection Alliance, all this pumping comes at too high a price. The water project decimates populations of endangered fish. And the group sued to protect the fish under the Endangered Species Act. A judge has now ruled in favor of the fish, and the prospect that the pumps could get shut off has sent shock waves throughout California.

To give us some insight into the conflict, we looked up Tom Philps. He’s an editorial writer for The Sacramento Bee newspaper and joins us now. Hi there.

PHILPS: How you doin’?

CURWOOD: So the say in the west, that “whisky’s for drinkin’ n’ water’s for fightin.” Do I have that right?

PHILPS: You got it right. It’s guaranteed employment for me. I write water editorials. So I got, it’s so called fish in a barrel out here. There’s more water controversies than anyone has conceivable time to write about. The delta is our biggest problem.

CURWOOD: On this controversy what’s the position of The Sacramento Bee?

PHILPS: The Sacramento Bee’s position is that our delta is one broken delta. It is the most important estuary that we have in California. It’s the most important source of drinking water. And we have yet to figure out a way to do right by the fish and to do right by using this delta as a sustainable source of water.

CURWOOD: How did this thing wind up in court? What motivated the sports fishing group to file this lawsuit?

PHILPS: They have been extremely concerned about certain species of fish that live year-round in the delta called smelt and shad etc…And their numbers have been plummeting to low numbers and they haven’t been able to do much about it. So this lawsuit was a primal scream. It was going to the courts and saying, “we don’t think all this pumping from the delta is complying with the state’s endangered species act.

CURWOOD: Now, what’s the basis of the lawsuit and the endangered species act?

PHILPS: The basis is pretty simple. Under the state endangered species act you have to have a piece of paper that allows you to essentially kill an endangered species as part of your activity. And the State of California for these pumps, the state water project does not have that piece of paper, the so-called “incidental take permit” that allows them to take fish, kill fish, as they operate the pumps.

The San Joaquin delta in California. (Courtesy of U.S. Geological Survey)

CURWOOD: So, as I understand it the trial level judge issued an order. He said, “Hey sixty days these pumps have to be shut down.” What’s happened since then?

PHILPS: A lot has happened since then. The water a community has gone into uh, their blood pressure has risen many times over. They have been scrambling to figure out what to do if the pumps were shut down. At the moment there is a lull in the action. The judge has said, “I am going to stay this decision. You the State of California have some time to figure out how you’re going to comply with the Endangered Species Act.” So at this moment that clock is not ticking. But that clock is still out there and it continues to have people pretty nervous.

CURWOOD: So you have the law on the side of the environmental activists here. These sports fishing groups that say, “hey this is not complying with the endangered species act.” And then on the other side you have what 18 or 20 million people who really depend on water out of this system. If in fact these pumps were shut down those people would be out of water. How do you get a winner in a scenario like that?

PHILPS: (laughs) You thread the needle is what you do. Compromise on a big water fight only happens when every side is uncomfortable, that the status quo does not serve anyone’s interest and that not only do we have to change, that change is the right thing. We absolutely have to change and there’s no choice. Politically there’s no choice, environmentally there’s no choice, legally there’s no choice. That’s only the time that we figure out how to do something around here.

CURWOOD: What is the correct solution? What is the advice you give your readers as the editor for The Sacramento Bee on this subject?

PHILPS: California has to think long and hard about how much water it can pull safely out of this delta and where it pulls the water from. At the moment we pull the water out of the southern part of the delta. And by pulling the water out of there it causes all kinds of rivers within the delta to move backwards. It really kind of screws up the estuary where we’re pumping it. So, we have some questions about how we manage the delta. Tough stuff.

CURWOOD: Recently, your governor declared a state of emergency on the source of the San Joaquin because the Sierra’s what, have only thirty percent of the snow that they usually have. Water is getting tighter and tighter and with the indications coming from research on climate change, it doesn’t look like things will get too easy any time soon.

PHILPS: You’re absolutely right. Our dams are designed to capture the snowmelt and then release it. Capture some more and then release it. And what happens when we don’t have as much snow? What happens when we have more rain than snow? We won’t be able to capture as much water and we will be facing some tough choices about how much agriculture we have, how efficient it is in using water. We’re just going to have to get a whole lot smarter and a whole lot more efficient and we’re going to fight over this for a long time.

CURWOOD: So, the lawyers are going to make a lot of money on this, huh?

PHILPS: If you have a child that’s interested in law I would suggest western water law would be a guaranteed source of income for the next several generations, no problem.

CURWOOD: Tom Philps is an editorial writer for The Sacramento Bee. Thank you so much sir.

PHILPS: You’re very welcome.



Tom Philps' blog, "Waterlog"

To view the proposed decision of the Superior Court of the State of California in the case between the Watershed Enforcers and the California Department of Water Resources, click here.


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