Donate Sign up for e-network
CENTER for BIOLOGICAL DIVERSITY Because life is good

Content on this page requires a newer version of Adobe Flash Player.

Get Adobe Flash player

Find out more from the Center for Biological Diversity:
Santa Ana sucker

The Hill, April 18, 2011

Don't Blame the Santa Ana Sucker
by Adam Lazar and Ilene Anderson

Thursday’s opinion piece by Douglas Headrick of the San Bernardino Valley Water District (“Poor Oversight Leaves California Dry”) simply doesn’t hold water. 

Headrick claimed that California’s State Water Project is unable to provide enough water to agencies because of the Santa Ana sucker, a small fish protected under the Endangered Species Act.

In fact, the sucker is completely unrelated to the State Water Project. The real reason the author wants endangered species protections removed is to prevent releases from the local dam – which, not insignificantly, would also deprive many residents of Southern California of their primary water supply.

Headrick offers a half-truth that the state water project (“SWP”) is delivering less than it is supposed to. In fact, the project cannot physically deliver all the water that has been contracted for—but it is delivering far, far more this year than in years past. 

This massive project collects north coast river water behind dams and sends it south for use in the Central Valley and Southern California. Logically, then, the project can only deliver as much as those dams can store, but the state was prevented from building many of the dams originally envisioned for the SWP. As a result, the project can only deliver about half of the contracted amounts in a typical year.

Yet this year, due to an exceptionally wet year, the dams had to release excess water because they were over-capacity. So in fact, the 70 percent of contract water promised for 2011 is not some artificial reduction but precisely the opposite: a one-time increase in order to relieve over-capacity reservoirs.

Still, Headrick tries to heap blame on the Santa Ana sucker. To be clear, none of the waters where the sucker lives are part of the State Water Project. Rather, this little fish lives primarily in its namesake river, and it’s vital that its protections remain intact. 

The sucker is not only an important fish but also a bellwether for the health of the area’s local streams. Suckers primarily eat algae that grow along slower flowing areas of rivers and are a prey item for predatory fish and amphibians, fulfilling an important ecological niche in river ecology. 

The sucker is a tough and resilient little fish; its slide toward extinction in recent decades signifies a river in trouble. By protecting the habitat for this remarkable fish, we not only help staunch the worldwide extinction crisis, but ensure our precious water supplies remain protected.

Moreover, this issue isn’t really about fish versus people, but about the San Bernardino Valley water district versus the rest of the residents of Southern California. The real reason the op-ed’s author wants Endangered Species Act protections removed is so the water district can avoid releasing water into the lower Santa Ana River and take more water for itself from behind its local dam (which was built, incidentally, for flood control, not as a reservoir). 

However, releases from the dam are critical not just to the sucker and other species in the Santa Ana River, but to all downstream users, including Southern California residents who depend on those flows. Such users include scores of people served by the Orange County water district. These citizens will be the human victims of any loss in the sucker’s habitat protection. 

An honest assessment of the situation holds that the sucker does not present a threat to the state water project. The Endangered Species Act should be allowed to do its job, and California’s water supply shouldn’t be implicated merely because one district wants more than its fair share of water from the local dam. Congress has bigger fish to fry, so to speak, than to side with San Bernardino residents over Orange County residents and leave endangered species in the lurch.

Adam Lazar is a staff attorney and Ileene Anderson is a biologist for the Center for Biological Diversity, a national environmental group that advocates for endangered species and wild places.

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton