Santa Ana Sucker: Balancing conservation efforts

What kind of respect for human needs or common sense is there in a decision that threatens water supplies – and the economy in general – for one of the nation’s most populated areas?

Moreover, what makes the Service think that expanding the Sucker’s habitat area will do more to ensure its survival than what water agencies have already done for the species thus far? The Service itself concluded six years ago that existing Sucker conservation programs were sufficient and that no additional habitat was required.

What’s changed since then? The Service didn’t say, nor did it take the time to develop a recovery plan for the Sucker to provide guidance in the designation of critical habitat, as required by the ESA.

Moreover, the Service’s “Final Rule” fails to provide factual and scientific evidence to justify an expansion of the Sucker’s habitat area, another ESA requirement. In fact, some of the biological studies the Service cited to justify its decision contradict its own arguments for expanding the critical habitat area.

But rather than defend such studies or offer up any biological justification for the Service’s critical habitat designation, the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity used its April 18th op/ed to The Hill as an opportunity to tell local water agencies about imported and local water supplies when in reality CBD knows very little about such matters.

CBD has a long history of suing the Service over its designations of critical habitat. While there is no evidence that any of these suits have resulted in the upgrading or de-listing of any species, there is irrefutable evidence that CBD's actions have resulted in the expenditure of thousands, if not millions, of taxpayer dollars to defend the lawsuits. While this may be pleasing to the lawyers, the barriers to development that result from such designations of habitat are not helpful in what is already a struggling local economy.

The water agencies intend to sue the Service for its overly broad and unsupported critical habitat designation, which could have crippling effects on water supplies. The agencies submitted a 50-page notice to the Service explaining the factual and legal basis for their position, including the fact that just recently the State Water Resources Control Board determined that water diversions from the Santa Ana River at the Seven Oaks Dam would not impact the Sucker. The Final Rule completely disregards this decision in violation of the ESA. In other words, it’s now in the Service’s hands to justify the Final Rule, not the CBD.

Nobody has done more to conserve the Sucker than inland Southern California water agencies. We’ve spent the past 10 years successfully developing and implementing a Santa Ana Sucker Conservation Program that is already working to recover and restore habitats for this endangered species in collaboration with the California Department of Fish and Game. The program has produced significant research, including reproductive monitoring surveys, the development of population estimates, increased project management, habitat surveying and mapping as well as invasive species removal.

Water agencies have done more than anyone to actually preserve the Sucker and its habitat, and we’re prepared to do more. But we need to balance our conservation efforts with a similarly compelling need to provide water for people. All we ask is that the Service thoroughly consider all of the facts, all of the scientific studies and make reasonable and balanced policy decisions concerning the Sucker that are in accordance with ESA requirements. Complying with the law isn’t too much to ask.

Douglas Headrick is general manager of San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District.