As those of use concerned about salmon recovery watch the dismal numbers of salmon return to the Columbia River and its tributaries, irrigators have asked the Trump Administration to convene what is called the "God Squad." It is a provision in the Endangered Species Act (ESA) that allows the President to convene a committee of cabinet members to then "play God" in making choices about literally the life or extinction of a particular species. Essentially, the God Squad is convened to roll back and rescind protections for a species that has been listed threatened or endangered under the ESA.
As it is in the Pacific Northwest, we have significant stresses and strains on salmon and steelhead. They once were so plentiful that Lewis and Clark wrote in their journals that they believed they could walk across the abundant salmon as if they were protruding rocks in the Columbia. Now, we consider it a success when more than one Sockeye returns to Red Lake in Idaho.
The picture above is of a suction dredge, left abandoned in a critical steelhead spawning tributary of the Wenatchee River. This is a violation of the minuscule rules for hobby mining in Washington. Over the course of the "mining season" we find violation after violation of the rules. Our wildlife agency, strapped for money, not only doesn't have the will to enforce the regulations but barely the manpower. And this dredge, along with dozens of others, cause enormous cumulative impacts on these critical steams and rivers.
Yet, the hobby miners insist that even the minuscule regulations, like the minuscule regulations on irrigators in Kennewick, Washington, are too much and impact their ability to do what they want.
Someday, very soon, we will be wistfully telling our children about salmon and steelhead. Or we can be telling them about how we all worked together, each making sacrifices, to help these iconic fish return. Now, which way would God want it?
There is a saying in the West, that "whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting."
Two events in the news today bring that saying home. First, in Washington state. Almost a year ago the Washington State Supreme Court issued an opinion now known as the HIrst Decision. Prior to this court case, if a landowner wanted to drill a well they were not required to get a permit. Rather, wells for domestic use were considered "exempt" from the permit requirement. However, as we become more knowledgeable about hydrology, we are confident that there is a link between groundwater withdrawal and flows in surface streams. In other words, the more water you take out of the ground, the less water goes into streams. Hydrologic continuity.
In Whatcom County an environmental organization brought litigation against the county for allowing building permits with exempt wells as the water source. Most rivers and streams in Washington state are over allocated, meaning that rights to the water in the streams are more than what "normal" in-stream flows should allow. So the Washington State Supreme Court decided that for a county to issue a building permit that depends on an exempt well for domestic use, the county must show that that well will not cause any significant reduction in the watershed's in-stream flow. This is a rather significant undertaking.
Of course, the building industry went on a legislative lobbying spree, seeking to not only find a legislative fix for the Hirst Decision but also to roll back the state's growth management regulations which also limit development in rural and forested areas.
This is a highly complex issue with many stakeholders involved, including tribes, anglers, hydrologists, developers, land owners. It will take more than a "regulatory roll back" in order to protect Washington's vital waters that have been under enormous pressure over the past decades. But the Republicans have been trying, holding up budget negotiations in order to ram through their idea of regulatory relief.
Rather, what needs to happen is our policy makers take some time to understand the complexity of hydrology, bring all stakeholders to the table, and find ways to ensure that constant ground water withdrawals are not impacting the last of our iconic salmon and steelhead rivers.
And in California, Republican members of Congress want to dam, channel, and divert the San Joaquin River, claiming that farmers matter more than fish. The callousness of that statement is breathtaking. No one denies that farmers are vital to us, but this should not be an either/or proposition.
It takes water to make whiskey. But it sure looks like we are in for more fights than can be cured by having a drink with each other.
The Clean Water Act is a cornerstone of protecting our waters in this country. It was signed into law by President Richard Nixon, a Republican. Fires on the Cuyahoga River (burning on pollution) and unsafe drinking water spurred Congress into action, but it took President Nixon's support to get this legislation passed.
From then on, America has made miraculous progress in cleaning up and protecting our vital rivers, streams, and wetlands. These are the watersheds for not only farms and cities, but also provide critical habitat for wildlife.
As the Obama Administration grappled with the drinking water debacle in Flint, Michigan, the Environmental Protection Agency promulgated new rules implementing the Clean Water Act. In many ways, the new rules enhanced water quality protections. As our society becomes more complex, ensuring clean water is essential.
However, like everything else, there was a huge push back from developers and corporate agriculture. Now, the Trump Administration wants to repeal those rules and allow more discretion as to what ends up in our water.
Sometimes discretion is not a good thing.
Today, the Brookings Institute issued a paper on the abuses of conservation easements in the United States.
Conservation easements are a valuable tool for both landowners and regional landscapes, often preventing overdevelopment while granting the landowner valuable tax credits for not developing their land.
But, like any good thing, folks find a way to abuse it.
Working with land trusts, The Nature Conservancy, and other established non-governmental organizations can prevent and ensure that the landowner will not, sometime down the road, be subject to scrutiny over their attempts to protect landscapes.
We recently finished reading "Janesville" which we highly recommend. It's a thorough and interesting narrative about a town in Wisconsin (where Speaker of the House Paul Ryan is from) where GM closed it's factory and the impacts on several GM and other plant workers. One of the most searing observations is how many of the assembly workers from GM did not know how to use even the most rudimentary applications on a personal computer. For instance, few knew how to turn one on, much less type a paper from a computer, which seriously inhibited their ability to be "re-trained" at the local community college.
As our current President unwinds environmental regulations, particularly in the energy sector, we have a suggestion. Perhaps the quid pro quo for loosening regulations for many dying industries is that they have to provide mandatory computer training for all of their employees. So that when they are finally laid off, they at least have some technological capacity. That way, as we find jobs in restoring the polluted streams, restoring the mountain tops, remediating the open pit mines, all which will require the workers to have technological skills, they will be some what prepared.
It's the least we can ask for if the energy sector wants to willy-nilly dig into the earth without any oversight. Get your workers prepared for change.
As is many times the case, California is way ahead of all of us on climate change and carbon sequestration. It's in the dirt. Making sure dirt is storing carbon is wonderful in it's simplicity.
Washington state is a little behind California. We haven't a mechanism for credits to forest owners for carbon sequestration. Nor are we thinking about dirt.
Time, Washington, to get into the dirt.