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Friday, May 23, 2014

A Small Fish in a Big Game

By Myanna Dellinger

In California, the Bureau of Reclamation is in charge of divvying up water contracts in the California River Delta between the general public and senior local water rights owners.  Years ago, it signed off on long-term contracts that determined “the quantities of water and the allocation thereof” between the parties.  About a decade ago, it renewed these contracts without undertaking a consultation with the Fish and Wildlife Service (“FWS”) to find out whether the contract renewals negatively affected the delta smelt, a small, but threatened, fish species.  The thinking behind not doing so was that since the water contracts “substantially constrained” the Bureau’s discretion to negotiate new terms, no consultation was required.

Not correct, concluded an en banc Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals panel Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals panel recently.  By way of brief background, Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act (“ESA”) requires federal agencies to ensure that none of their actions jeopardizes threatened or endangered species or their habitat.  16 U.S.C. § 1536(a).  Among other things, federal agencies must consult with the FWS if they have “some discretion”"some discretion" to take action on behalf of a protected species.  In this case, since the contractual provision did not strip the Bureau of all discretion to benefit the species, consultation should have taken place.  For example, the Bureau could have renegotiated the pricing or timing terms and thus benefitted the species, said the court.

In 1993, the delta smelt had declined by 90% over the previous 20 years and was thus listed as a threatened species under the ESA.  Of course, fish is not the only species vying for increasingly scarce California water.  Man is another.  The current and ongoing drought in California – one of the worst in history – raises questions about future allocations of water.  Who should be prioritized?  Private water right holders?  People in Southern California continually thirsty and eager to water their often overly water-demanding garden plants?  Industry?  Farmers?  Not to mention the wild animals and plants depending on sufficient levels of water?  There are no easy answers here.

The California drought is estimated to cost Central Valley farmers $1.7 billion and 14,500 jobs.  While that seems drastic, the drought is still not expected to have any significant effect on the state economy as California is no longer an agricultural state.  In fact, agriculture only accounts for 5% of jobs in California.  Still, that is no consolation to people losing their jobs in California agriculture or consumers having to pay higher prices for produce in an increasingly warming and drying California climate. 

The 1974 movie Chinatown focused on the Los Angeles water supply system.  40 years later, the problem is just as bad, if not worse.  The game as to who gets water contracts and for how much water is still on.

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