NRDC v. Kempthorne: Resolving the Conflict Between Economic Development and Environmental Protection in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta
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California’s economy is heavily reliant on the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and its ability to deliver a steady water supply. However, impacts caused by development and exploitation of the water resource are compromising the health of the Delta ecosystem, thereby threatening the state’s future water supply. As scientific understanding increases, new environmental interests are superimposed on a water resource management system created with the singular purpose of facilitating growth and economic development. Water is a finite resource and cannot continue to meet increasing statewide demands while simultaneously retaining enough water in-stream to protect the Delta environment and its endangered and threatened inhabitants. The resulting struggle to maintain reliable water supplies for both economic and environmental interests leads to intense conflict. The Delta management structure further contributes to the polarization of these interests. Federal and state agencies with intersecting jurisdictions find themselves struggling to fulfill opposing purposes. Despite attempts at collaborative management, a recent federal Endangered Species Act challenge known as NRDC v. Kempthorne highlights the tradeoff between environmental protection and economic development that continues to persist in Delta decision-making. The judge’s decision to restrict water exports in order to protect the delta smelt, a species of fish listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, significantly reduces the water supplied to agricultural and urban areas across the state. This masters project reviews resource management issues in the Delta leading up to the court’s holding in NRDC v. Kempthorne as well as management solutions proposed in the wake of recent water supply restrictions, and comments on their implications in resolving or exacerbating the conflict between various Delta stakeholders. A new system of governance is clearly needed to promote more unified goals, but proposals to re-engineer the Delta suggest economic interests may again prevail at the expense of the environment.
DepartmentNicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences
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