Finance, insurance, real estate special interests near total victory over 3-inch fish

The immanent extinction of the Delta smelt is exciting a flurry of studies, commentaries, and government evasion. . As we approach another development surge in California, it is apparent that lawyers, lobbyists, academics  and flakpersons for the Finance, Insurance and Real Estate conglomerate that rules the state have invented new layers of obfuscation between the conglomerate's work and the damage it does.

The most likely outcome for the fish is extinction (by any other name and there will be several) sometime during the administration of Gov. Gavin Newsom and probably during the tenure of David Bernhardt, slated to be approved soon to be Secretary of the Department of Interior.

We that this obfuscation to be the point of the Dan Bacher article in Counterpunch, as usual, impeccably documented.  The announcement of the Bureau of Reclamation biological opinions on two key California water projects is just an agency press release.

We are grateful for the long, detailed article in the New York Times about Bernhardt, but take its failure to mention his long relationship with Westlands Water District as evidence that the final demise of a three-inch fish in the largest estuary on the West Coast isn't news in Gotham.

How are we going to make the public aware of the drastic event about to take place when special interests and resource agencies have aided and abetted this extinction for years? Why has this entire edifice of "environmental protection" failed to live up to the plain meaning of its purpose?-- blj

 

2-5-19

Counterpunch.com

On Extinction’s Edge: Fall Fish Survey Finds Zero Delta Smelt

Dan Bacher

https://www.counterpunch.org/2019/02/05/on-extinctions-edge-fall-fish-su...

For the first time ever, a fish survey that the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) conducts every autumn turned up zero Delta smelt throughout the monitoring sites in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta in September, October, November and December 2018.

The smelt, a 2 to 3 inch fish listed under both federal and state Endangered Species Acts, is found only in the Delta estuary. It is regarded as an indicator species, a fish that demonstrates the health of the entire Delta ecosystem.

Once the most abundant fish in the entire estuary, the population has collapsed to the point where not one fish was found in the 2018 Fall Midwater Trawl survey. The 2018 abundance index (0), a relative measure of abundance, is the lowest in FMWT history.

“No Delta Smelt were collected from any station during our survey months of September- December,” wrote James White, environmental scientist for the CDFW’s Bay Delta Region.

This is not the only survey of Delta smelt populations that the CDFW conducts — and the other assessments have found smelt, although in alarmingly low numbers.

White noted, “While this survey did not catch any Delta Smelt, it does not mean they are not present. Spring Kodiak Trawl (SKT) survey caught 5 Delta Smelt in December.”

White also said another survey, the Enhanced Delta Smelt Monitoring (EDSM) survey, caught 13 Delta Smelt during December.

While decades of water exports and environmental degradation under previous governors and federal administrations have brought the smelt, once the most abundant fish in the Delta, to the edge of extinction, Governor Jerry Brown and his administration did nothing to reverse the trend, but only helped to worse the endangered fish’s status, according to fishermen and environmentalists.

Before this fall, the 2017 abundance index (2) was lowest in FMWT history. Only 2 Delta smelt were collected at index stations in the survey during the fall of 2017.

The Delta smelt is not the only fish absent during the fall 2018 survey. The CDFW didn’t observe any Sacramento splittail, a native minnow species that was formerly listed under the Endangered Species Act until Bush administration delisted the species and the Obama administration agreed with the delisting, in the 2018 fall survey either.

The striped bass, a popular gamefish that migrates from the ocean, San Francisco Bay and Delta up into the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers every spring to spawn, also showed an alarming drop in abundance during the survey.

The 2018 abundance index (42) for striped bass was the lowest in FMWT history, slightly less than the previous low value (43) in 2010. Thirty-one age-0 striped bass were collected at index stations, noted White.

The longfin smelt, a cousin of the Delta smelt, isn’t faring very well either in the estuary. “The 2018 abundance index (52) was the 5th lowest value in FMWT history, a 63% reduction from the previous year. Thirty-one Longfin Smelt were collected at index stations,” said White.

The number of threadfin shad, an introduced forage fish species, continued to decline. The 2018 abundance index (198) was the 4th lowest in survey history, a 32% reduction from the previous year. The CDFW found 150 threadfin shad at index stations.

The abundance of American shad in the trawl is also disappointing. The 2018 abundance index (1064) was the 21st lowest value on record, a 66% reduction from the previous year. Seven-hundred and two American shad were collected at index stations.

The January 2 memo summarizing the Fall Midwater Trawl results is available here: nrm.dfg.ca.gov/…

The link to the Fall Midwater Trawl monthly abundance indices is available here: www.dfg.ca.gov/

Bill Jennings, Executive Director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance (CSPA), commented on the disastrous decline of Delta smelt and other fish species in the Fall Midwater Trawl by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW).

“The abundance of both Delta smelt and striped bass is the lowest in the trawl’s history,” said Jennings. “Longfin is the fifth lowest, threadfin shad is the fourth lowest, American shad is a 66 percent reduction from the previous year and the splittail is zero. This is a very comprehensive trawl and the results were a disaster for Delta fisheries.”

“Not only is the Delta smelt on the brink of extinction but there are several species lined up behind it,” noted Jennings. “Governor Brown’s legacy is likely to be several extinctions of fish that flourished in this estuary for millennia.”

“We know what fish need. Fish prosper when they have adequate flows and quality water. They suffer when they don’t. The question is how do we get them to survive on less water of poorer quality than they evolved with for thousands of years. The answer appears to be they can’t,” Jennings concluded.

Dr. Jonathan Rosenfield, the Lead Scientist for The Bay Institute, emphasized in a tweet that Delta smelt are “not extinct,” since other sampling programs still catching them.

“Extinction is not imminent (if agencies take action),” he noted. “‘Flexible”, ‘adaptive’ implementation of the ESA (Endangered Species Act) has not worked. It’s time to enforce protections.”

Scientists don’t have any easy answer for the precipitous decline of Delta smelt over the past couple of years, particularly in 2017, a record water year when biologists would have expected a rebound.

“The answer is that we really don’t know,” said Dr. Peter B Moyle, Distinguished Professor, Emeritus, at the Department of Wildlife, Fish, and Conservation Biology, Center for Watershed Sciences, UC Davis, in December 2017. “The best explanation I can think of is that numbers are so low that an increase (or decrease) in the index would not be detectable with the FMT sampling.”

“Another is that there was so much water last winter (2017) that smelt were more dispersed than usual and had a hard time finding mates; this would keep numbers low. When numbers are as low, as they clearly are for smelt, random factors in sampling, in distribution, in spawning success etc can make a big difference to the total population or the index,” said Moyle.

“Note that Delta smelt are still abundant enough in places so that focused sampling can find them. For example, Tien-Chieh Hung had no problem collecting a 100 smelt in one day for his smelt culture program,” he noted

A number of factors have resulted in the decline of Delta smelt and the other pelagic species, including increases in toxics and invasive species, but no factor has helped precipitate the collapse of Delta fish species more than the export of big quantities of water to agribusiness and Southern California water agencies from the state and federal pumping facilities in the South Delta over the past 50 years, according to fish advocates.

The record total for water exports, including water diverted by the Contra Costa Canal and North Bay Aqueduct, was 6,633,000 acre-feet in 2011 under the Brown administration. That was 163,000 acre-feet more than the previous record of 6,470,000 acre-feet set in 2005 under the Schwarzenegger administration, according to DWR data.

Found only in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, the Delta smelt mainly inhabits the freshwater-saltwater mixing zone of the estuary, except during its spawning season. That’s when it migrates upstream to freshwater following winter “first flush” flow events, around March to May.

The smelt is very susceptible to changes in the environmental conditions of its habitat due to its one-year lifecycle and relatively low fecundity. Because of this, the fish is regarded as an “indicator species” that demonstrates the health of the Delta ecosystem.

It is imperative that the Gavin Newson administration break with the failed water policies of Brown and his predecessors and adopt rational water policies, based on science, that restore Delta smelt, Chinook salmon, steelhead and other fish species and the San Francisco Bay Delta ecosystem while providing a reliable and sustainable water supply for all Californians.

Remember: Extinction is forever. If the smelt becomes extinct, salmon, steelhead and other fish species will soon follow.

Background from CDFW: The California Department of Fish and Wildlife has conducted the Fall Midwater Trawl Survey (FMWT) to index the fall abundance of pelagic fishes nearly annually since1967. FMWT equipment and methods have remained consistent since the survey’sinception, which allows the indices to be compared across time. These relative abundance indices are not intended to approximate population sizes. However, we expect that our indices reflect general patterns in population change.

The FMWT conducts monthly surveys from September through December. The annual abundance index is the sum of the September through December monthly survey indices. During each monthly survey, one 12-minute oblique midwater trawl tow is conducted at each of 100 index stations used for index calculation and at an additional 22 non-index stations that provide enhanced distribution information.

The 2018 sampling season completed on December 18. Field crews successfully conducted tows at all index and non-index stations during the first three survey months. Two non-index stations in Cache Slough (stations 713 and 721) were not sampled in December due to heavy vegetation damaging sampling gear.

 

2-6-19

Goldrushcam.com

Bureau of Reclamation Releases Biological Assessment for the Central Valley Project and State Water Project

 

https://goldrushcam.com/sierrasuntimes/index.php/news/local-news/17413-b...

February 6, 2019 - SACRAMENTO, Calif. - The Bureau of Reclamation released the Biological Assessmentfor the re-initiation of consultation on the coordinated long-term operation of the Central Valley Project and State Water Project. The document was transmitted to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service for consideration in developing new biological opinions covering CVP and SWP operations. Reclamation and the California Department of Water Resources re-initiated consultation in 2016 based on new information related to multiple years of drought and ongoing science efforts.

In October 2018, President Donald J. Trump signed the Presidential Memorandum on Promoting the Reliable Supply and Delivery of Water in the West, citing the "diminished...ability" of America's infrastructure "to deliver water and power in an efficient, cost-effective way." To that end, the Memorandum directed the Secretary of the Interior and the Secretary of Commerce to work together to complete the consultation process in a timely manner.

The Biological Assessment supports Reclamation’s consultation pursuant to Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act of 1973. It was prepared consistent with the timeline outlined in the Presidential Memorandum. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service are expected to issue final biological opinions within 135 days.

“It has been 10 years since the biological opinions on the coordinated long-term operation of the CVP and SWP were issued. Since then, we’ve experienced extreme drought and invested significant resources to advance the science of the Central Valley and the Delta in coordination with our state and federal partner agencies and stakeholders. The result of our investments is an improved understanding of the system,” said Mid-Pacific Regional Director Ernest Conant. “By expanding our toolkit with the best science and using what we know today, new biological opinions will allow us to maximize water and power benefits while supporting endangered fish populations.”

The Biological Assessment analyzes potential effects of the proposed action on federally listed endangered and threatened species and critical habitat for these species. The proposed action incorporates the best available science into the operation of the CVP and SWP. Proposed actions outlined in the document include temperature management at Shasta Dam, fall habitat and salinity measures in the Delta, and entrainment management related to water exports. Together, these proposed actions aim to give water operators more flexibility, maximize water supply delivery and optimize power generation consistent with applicable laws.

 

2-4-19

New York Times

Trump Chooses David Bernhardt, a Former Oil Lobbyist, to Head the Interior Dept.

By Coral Davenport

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/04/climate/david-bernhardt-interior-zink...

WASHINGTON — President Trump on Monday announced he would nominate David Bernhardt, a former oil lobbyist and current deputy chief of the Interior Department, to succeed Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who resigned amid allegations of ethical missteps.

In a message on Twitter, Mr. Trump wrote, “David has done a fantastic job from the day he arrived, and we look forward to having his nomination officially confirmed!”

While Mr. Zinke had been the public face of some of the largest rollbacks of public-land protections in the nation’s history, Mr. Bernhardt was the one quietly pulling the levers to carry them out, opening millions of acres of land and water to oil, gas and coal companies. He is described by allies and opponents alike as having played a crucial role in advancing what Mr. Trump has described as an “energy dominance” agenda for the country.

“Bernhardt has really been running the show, directing the policy shop in a very strong way,” said Mark Squillace, an expert on environmental law at the University of Colorado Law School.

Echoing a frequent critique of Mr. Bernhardt, Mr. Squillace emphasized that the former energy lobbyist and lawyer, if confirmed by the Senate, would have broad authority to shape rules that affect his former clients. “That’s my concern with Bernhardt, his ties to industry,” Mr. Squillace said.

Republicans and the oil industry cheered the appointment. “It’s a brilliant move,” said Representative Rob Bishop of Utah, the ranking Republican on the House Natural Resources Committee, whom Mr. Trump had also considered for the job. “No one is more experienced, and I look forward to working with him.”

Barry Russell, chief executive of the Independent Petroleum Association of America, a former client of Mr. Bernhardt’s, said in a statement, “Mr. Bernhardt knows the department well, and understands the integral role that the Department of the Interior plays in oil and natural gas development, both onshore and offshore.” He added, “We look forward to working with the Department on new ways to continue growing our economy, while improving the environment and enhancing life for all Americans.”

Mr. Trump has pushed the Interior Department to reduce regulations on the oil industry and open new lands and waters to drilling. After Mr. Trump ordered Mr. Zinke to open almost the entire United States coastline to offshore drilling, Mr. Bernhardt did the heavy lifting of developing the plan, which Mr. Zinke called “a new path for energy dominance in America.”

And when the president told the department to weaken safety regulations on offshore drilling equipment, the agency’s proposal said its plan “would fortify the administration’s objective of facilitating energy dominance” by encouraging domestic oil and gas production.

 

As Mr. Bernhardt prepares to take the helm, he is well aware that he will face accusations of conflicts of interest. The issue came up repeatedly in his 2017 Senate confirmation hearing for the deputy job.

 

He told senators that he would assiduously avoid potential conflicts of interest. “If I get a whiff of something coming my way that involves a client or a former client for my firm, I’m going to make that item run straight to the ethics office,” he said. “And when it gets there, they’ll make whatever decision they’re going to make. And that will be it for me.”

Mr. Bernhardt was narrowly confirmed to his current post by a vote of 53 to 43, with most Democrats voting against him, and on Monday Democrats in Congress vowed to aggressively scrutinize his actions. Representative Raúl M. Grijalva, the Arizona Democrat who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee, said, “The president putting him in charge of regulating his former clients is a perfect example of everything wrong with this administration.”

If enough Democrats opposed Mr. Bernhardt’s nomination, they could block a procedural motion requiring 60 votes to bring his confirmation to the Senate floor.

Mr. Bernhardt, who was also a top interior official in the George W. Bush administration, went on to work for some of the country’s largest oil and gas companies. As a partner in the law firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, he lobbied for the oil companies Cobalt International Energy and Samson Resources. His legal clients have included the Independent Petroleum Association of America and Halliburton Energy Services, the oil- and gas-extraction firm once led by former Vice President Dick Cheney.

In August 2017, Mr. Bernhardt signed an ethics letter saying he would recuse himself from policy decisions that might stand to benefit former clients specifically.

If confirmed, Mr. Bernhardt will lead a sprawling department that oversees the nation’s nearly 500 million acres of public land, including vast national monuments and protected wilderness areas. Already, in little more than a year as the department’s deputy, he has overseen numerous polices aimed at opening public lands and waters to mining, drilling, farming and other development.

 

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Environmentalists see him as a threat. “David Bernhardt is the most dangerous man in America for endangered species and public lands,” said Noah Greenwald, the endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity, an advocacy group, adding that he “has been dismantling basic protections for lands that belong to all of us and the vulnerable species, like the sage grouse, that depend on them.”

This year, Mr. Bernhardt oversaw the revision of a program to protect tens of millions of acres of habitat of the imperiled sage grouse, a puffy-chested, chickenlike bird that roams over 10 oil-rich Western states. His proposal to change that plan, made public in December, would strip protections from about nine million acres of the sage grouse habitat, a move that would open more land to oil and gas drilling than any other single policy action by the Trump administration.

Mr. Bernhardt has also helped shepherd policies such as loosening the standards of the Endangered Species Act, speeding the path to opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to new oil and gas drilling,and reducing the boundaries of national monuments to open the land to mining and drilling.

Ethics inquiries into Mr. Zinke’s activities contributed to his departure in early January. He had become the subject of several federal investigations, one of which his department’s top watchdog has referred to the Justice Department, a potential step toward a criminal investigation.

The inquiries include an examination of a real estate deal involving Mr. Zinke’s family and a development group backed by David J. Lesar, the chairman of Halliburton. Mr. Zinke stood to benefit from the deal, while Mr. Lesar’s oil services company stood to benefit from Mr. Zinke’s decisions on fossil fuel production.

As public criticism of Mr. Zinke increased this fall with the news of the Halliburton deal and the Justice Department investigation, John F. Kelly, Mr. Trump’s chief of staff, sent Mr. Zinke a message: He should leave by year’s end or risk being fired in a potentially humiliating way, two people familiar with the discussion said.

In a statement posted on Twitter shortly after his resignation was announced, Mr. Zinke wrote: “After 30 years of public service, I cannot justify spending thousands of dollars defending myself and my family against false allegations. It is better for the President and Interior to focus on accomplishments rather than fictitious allegations.”

Among the first major decisions awaiting Mr. Bernhardt will be how to handle the administration’s plan to open the nation’s coastlines to offshore drilling — one of the issues for which Mr. Zinke is under investigation. After the Trump administration in early 2018 announced it would allow new offshore oil and gas drilling in nearly all United States coastal waters, Mr. Zinke made a surprise announcement a few days later on Twitter that he would exempt Florida from that plan.

The statement, which was accompanied by a photograph of Mr. Zinke and Rick Scott, the former Florida governor who was then running for a Senate seat, was seen as politically motivated. A federal investigation is continuing into whether it violated the Hatch Act, which prohibits federal employees from using their offices to influence elections.

Governors of other coastal states have said that they, too, would like to be exempt from the drilling, and that if the plan to exempt Florida but not other states goes forward, they will sue the department.

Mr. Bernhardt will now decide whether to enact Mr. Zinke’s pledge to Mr. Scott, who went on to win his Senate campaign.

Mr. Bernhardt’s allies say that despite his former ties to industries he now regulates, he is a scrupulously careful lawyer who will follow the letter of the law in avoiding conflicts of interest. They also contend that Mr. Bernhardt’s experience in the Bush administration and the oil industry will help him run the agency with a professionalism that sometimes appears to be lacking in other corners of the Trump administration, where some agency heads have had little experience in the fields of policy that they govern.

“Interior is one of these agencies that has an extremely broad and deep mandate,” said James L. Connaughton, a top environmental adviser to Mr. Bush who worked closely with Mr. Bernhardt. “Dave Bernhardt is among the very small group of individuals in the country that would come to the job with the experience to manage its very challenging agenda.”

Regarding concerns about Mr. Bernhardt’s possible conflicts of interest, Mr. Connaughton said, “A seasoned government professional like Dave knows how to take off his industry hat and put on his government hat.”

 

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