San Jacinto Wildlife Area could lose its water supply

The San Jacinto Wildlife Area is on the verge of losing at least half of its water supply in the short term, and in the long-term, worse-case scenario, all of the wetlands and ponds that have been developed over the past 25 years will largely dry-up, ruining its value for wildlife.

Ironically, it is the state Department of Fish and Wildlife that is negotiating away the water rights for this western Riverside County wildlife area adjacent to Lake Perris.

ìWhat frosts me is that California has lost 95 percent of its wetlands, and we’re giving more away,î said Tom Paulek, a retired Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist who managed the wildlife area before retiring. ìThe area is 10,000-plus acres now, and we haven’t realized the full potential for wildlife conservation there. We can do amazing things out there if we have water.î

Is the DFW no longer interested in doing amazing things for wildlife on this land? There is some background needed to understand what is happening here.

San Jacinto Wildlife Area was created as partial mitigation for the destruction to wildlife and wetlands caused by the state water project that brought northern California water to Southern California. Over the years it has become one of the most popular hunting areas in the region, and it has become a magnet for birders because of its incredible diversity of resident and migrant birds. That was because of the water the DFW put in ponds, wetlands, and riparian areas.

The water supply used by the wildlife area was negotiated in 1987 with the Eastern Municipal Water District. It was for a maximum of 4,500-acre feet per year of reclaimed water, and the DFW has used an average of 2,300-acre feet per year over the past 12 years, with a maximum of 3,100 acre feet. While the DFW has never used the full allotment, the wildlife area has been expanded with additional land purchases, and it has not been developed to anywhere near its full potential for wetlands.

The original agreement also gave the DFW the right to purchase the reclaimed water at a reduced price (partially because the EMWD received about $1 million worth of infrastructure developments during the construction of the state water project).

The original agreement signed in 1987 between the DFW and EMWD was for 25 years with a guarantee the agreement would be extended ìfor the life of the project,î or as long as the San Jacinto Wildlife Area existed. The DFW essentially had a permanent right to up to 4,500-acre feet a year of reclaimed water from EMWD. The basic agreement expired in 2014.

The EMWD contract extension proposal floated last year would have required the DFW to make three huge concessions. First, it would mandate a 65 percent increase in the cost of the reclaimed water to the state (from $38 per acre foot to $63 per acre foot), along with regular cost increases higher than had been set by the 1987 agreement. Second, it would have set 3,100 acre feet as the new maximum the DFW could purchase with 2,200 acre feet the norm. Last, it set additional restrictions on when the DFW could use the water that suited the EMWD, not when it was best for the DFW to use the water for wildlife.

In a one-year extension of the original 1987 agreement, the DFW relented to using no more than 2,200 acre feet of water for the 2014-15 season at $38 per acre foot, and negotiations are ongoing for a second year extension now.

The DFW cannot enter into a longer term water agreement until the new management plan and environmental impact report for the expanded wildlife area (which now includes a huge piece of property south of Interstate 60 in the Banning Pass area known as the Protrero Unit) is completed. The management plan has been delayed for nearly a decade, and while a draft has been completed since late 2012, it has not been released for public comment until the EIR is completed, which has also been delayed repeatedly without explanation.

Lastly, there has been a persistent rumor kicking around that the DFW, driven by extremist environmental politics in Sacramento, is willing to give up ALL of its rights to EMWD reclaimed water, effectively drying up the wildlife area.

Why would the DFW do this? Why would it scrap 25 years of effort to create this wildlife haven? It fits with the agenda being put forward by the ìnewî Sacramento-run DFW. Here are the three reasons:

First, there are new-school scientists within the DFW who do not believe in water or habitat enhancements, even as mitigation. The ground should be managed naturally. In their mind, San Jacinto Wildlife Area is best managed for endangered Steven’s kangaroo rats, and to a lesser extent for newly-listed tri-color blackbirds. Not spending nearly $100,000 a year on water and not having the staff on hand that creates and maintains ponding and wetlands frees up money and staffing for other uses.

Second, it reduces public interest and scrutiny of the wildlife area. The two disparate groups that love the area and battle the DFW over its management will disappear. First, waterfowl and upland bird hunters will disappear when the gamebirds the wildlife area supports disappear. Second, birders will cease to come because the incredible diversity will shrink to nothing as wetlands and riparian areas dry up. San Jacinto will lose its reputation as one of the top destinations for the Christmas Bird Count. The DFW management is anti-hunting and thinks birders are a nuisance. Eliminating the wetlands will allow the professionals free range to manage k-rats, tri-color blackbirds, and burrowing owls without public interference.

Third, they will say they are doing the public a favor. This is a preemptive strike. As development creeps ever-closer to the boundaries of the wildlife area and nearby dairies turn into housing tracts, the DFW is anticipating a hue and cry from new residents surround the wildlife area. Those residents will want to stop the shotgun shooting by waterfowlers because of bogus public safety concerns. They will want Davies Road paved and reopened so they have quick and easy access to Interstate 60. They will want the marshes and ponds dried up or sprayed to control mosquitos. The DFW is there to please, not to confront, not to do what’s best for wildlife on a grand scale, not to look out for the interest of the greater public as a whole. It is all about oiling little squeaks these days. [The DFG director thinks one of the agency’s major accomplishments is humanely handling dangerous wildlife when it blunders into urban areas.]

The news leaking out that the DFW is mucking up the 25-year-agreement for San Jacinto’s water supply might delay all this from happening in the short term. But the agency will cave on water and lose the 4,500-acre feet guarantee, assuring there will be no future expansion of wetlands, riparian, and ponding on the area. Costs of the reclaimed water will skyrocket and the DFW will have to cut back how much it buys, and a pond here and a marsh there will be allowed to dry up. All of the things outlined above will happen. If they don’t happen immediately in one fell swoop, they will happen incrementally over time. The current management of the DFW is not interested in our wild resources, or hunters or birders, or mitigation. They are interested in their agenda. And the agenda isn’t about saving and expanding the San Jacinto Wildlife Area.

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