Commentary: Delta biological opinions offer a better way forward

Issue Date: October 30, 2019
By Justin Fredrickson
Justin Fredrickson
Biological opinions to guide protection of fish and wildlife in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta will help coordinate operations of federal and state water projects in the region.
Photo/California Department of Water Resources

Long-awaited biological opinions for federal and state water projects are out—and the spin doctors are out in force.

The biological opinions from federal fisheries agencies guide how to protect fish and wildlife in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta during coordinated operations of the federal Central Valley Project and State Water Project (see story). Their provisions in the past have contributed to reduced supplies for project water customers while fish populations continued to drop.

Before anyone had even seen the new biological opinions—much less had time to analyze what is actually in them—environmental litigators, reporters and editorial boards had made up their minds: "Trump weakens fish protections!"; "Trump diverts water to farms!" they thundered. They described reaction to the new biological opinions as a critical test of Gov. Newsom's environmental credentials. And despite months of unprecedented, collaborative work within the agencies to reach final agreement, they could imagine no other motive than the powerful forces of "Big Ag" and Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, who once represented the Westlands Water District.

But consider the source: For environmental groups whose real business is profiting off litigation, perpetual conflict is great for business. Similarly, for many a struggling news outlet, putting "Trump" in the headline generates clicks and retweets in direct proportion to deliberately stoked controversy.

For such groups, the instinct to fault, attack and tear down is hardly a surprise. But in the case of the federal agencies' new biological opinions, such rhetoric threatens the best chance to significantly improve conditions for both fish and water supply.

The literal words of the career biologists from the federal regulatory agencies are that enhanced measures within the opinions on water temperature and delta operations will ensure protection "the same or better" than the prior biological opinions—with added benefits from an estimated $1.5 billion investment in new habitat, hatchery management, drought mitigation, real-time management and new science.

Furthermore, asked whether the new biological opinions would increase water deliveries, the same officials said, quite frankly, they do not know. Rather, they said, it will depend on where the fish are—and, in some years, this could yield protections even "more stringent" than under the old opinions.

In part that's because the new biological opinions will continue to require water project operators to reduce or cease pumping whenever real-time monitoring and fish impacts in the delta indicate.

Under the new opinions, restrictions on pumping will be based not on rigid, calendar-based rules, but rather on dynamic, real-time monitoring of changing conditions and potential species impacts, within an improved scientific and adaptive-management-based decision-making framework.

The innovation of the new biological opinions appears to lie in their ability to bring a powerful new combination: avoiding or minimizing fishery impacts while increasing operational flexibility. This approach deploys a broadened toolbox to provide species the protection they require, while allowing continued project operations to improve the reliability of water deliveries to farms, cities and waterfowl whenever possible.

Additionally and importantly, the collaborative, interagency process, intensive negotiations and ongoing refinements of the past several months have produced operational rules that lay the foundation for eventual voluntary agreements on water flows for rivers that feed into the delta. Those agreements promise even greater protections and investments in fish and the environment.

Those who only gain from festering conflict and failure have no vested interest in a better way to improve outcomes for fish and people. Similarly, those who would make political hay at the expense of achievable progress act only in self-interest. For the farms, communities and environmentalists who are tired of a failed paradigm, we think it's high time we moved on.

Let's stop endlessly bickering and start working toward real solutions. Let's build upon, rather than tear down, this important foundation and push ahead with the next step—namely, a negotiated path to even greater commitments of water, habitat and investment in fish and the environment through eventual voluntary agreements that can protect vital water supplies for farms, cities, fish and fowl, in wet years and dry, for many years to come.

(Justin Fredrickson is environmental policy analyst for the California Farm Bureau Federation. He may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.