The Endangered Species Act is Not the Problem

A few days ago the Bend Bulletin ran an opinion piece from a local farmer that partially blamed the Endangered Species Act for irrigator water shortages. Below is the response I submitted. Let’s see if they print it.

7/29/21 UPDATE: That was fast, it’s in today’s paper.


The Bulletin recently ran a guest column from a Central Oregon farmer asserting that the Endangered Species Act is partly to blame for current water shortages.  Many local farmers need more water, but the column is written from a perspective that does not hold up to objective analysis.

Science is a cornerstone of our lives.  Our understanding of the world and the material things we use every day come from scientific inquiry.  Without science we would still live in the Dark Ages where lives were nasty, brutish, and short.  True, science is an on-going process, but the scientific method continues to refine our understanding of the world and deliver the benefits of that inquiry.

Today, the best available science overwhelming tells us that our burning of fossil fuels is causing global warming.  People in the United States and around the world are starting to experience the personal impact from it, but scientists have been sounding the alarm about warming for decades.  As predicted, a heating planet is causing extreme weather events like excessive heat, drought, wildfires, as well as heavy rains and localized, temporary extreme cold events as the jet stream is disrupted.

The scientific consensus is that we are now living in the 6th great extinction event that has occurred on Earth, an event that is accelerating.  Most of us are familiar with the idea that an asteroid killed the dinosaurs, but the fossil and geologic record shows that other mass extinctions occurred when carbon dioxide levels dramatically increased, most likely from increased volcanic activity.  The same thing is happening now, at an unprecedented rate, and volcanos are not the cause.

As an angler and fish advocate, I am quite aware of the science that says anadromous fish like salmon and steelhead will likely be extirpated in much of the Columbia Basin in our lifetimes.  In many places, low flows and higher temperatures are creating lethal conditions for anadromous fish as well as resident fish like trout and whitefish.  A great example of this can easily be seen this summer on the Crooked River below Prineville.

The Oregon Water Resources Department has a web site that graphs flows in many rivers including the Crooked near Smith Rocks State Park.  At times this July flows have been so low as to not be measurable.  At other times flows have been around 10 CFS.  At 10 CFS you can literally cross the river without getting your feet wet by stepping on the exposed rocks.  According to OWRD, the water temperature during this period has reached 90 degrees.  These are conditions that will kill all aquatic life, at least stress nearby plants, and negatively impact animals that are part of the ecosystem.

Crooked River at Near Smith Rocks

Readers of the Bulletin are likely aware of the ongoing effort to reintroduce steelhead and spring chinook salmon into the Upper Deschutes Basin above Lake Billy Chinook.  As of July 22nd, 72 returning adult spring chinook have been moved from the Lower Deschutes River into the lake and over half of them have moved up into the lowermost reaches of the Crooked River.  They will not make it far, however, certainly not to their historical spawning beds.

We have had decades to prepare for the impacts of global warming, but little has been done.  It is a global issue, but local action can be taken.  88% of the water rights in Central Oregon are held by irrigators and over half of that is wasted from canal seepage and widespread inefficient irrigation practices.  If anything, the current state of our local rivers illustrates that environmental protections are far too weak.  Should we drain even more water from our environment or share and more efficiently use the diminishing resources that we have?  Environmental protections are not the problem.  We are.