Letter to the Santa Cruz City Council regarding the pending HCP
June 9, 2011
Subject: City of Santa Cruz Water Department Habitat Conservation Plan
Greetings City Council members:
The Santa Cruz County Group of the Sierra Club is very interested in the development of this long delayed Habitat Conservation Plan. We understand that it will apply to every City action that impacts federal ESA listed species. As such, the plan will involve both the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and its sub-agency the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), as well as the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USF&W).
The impacts of the City Water Department are expected to be the most difficult to resolve and also will include the most extensive habitat and impact analysis of any of the other parts of this pending agreement with the federal government.
While the City is not statutorily obligated to include the interested public in its deliberations and analysis with NMFS until a permit application under section 10 of the ESA is formally submitted to NMFS; it is nonetheless recommended by both NMFS and USF&W that large complex public agency HCP discussions include a public "stakeholder" process.
The survival status of salmonids and the other wildlife and plants encompassed by this HCP is dire indeed. Coho salmon are near to complete extirpation from the Santa Cruz Mountains. They are currently sustained only by elaborate efforts including the recent introduction of genetic stock from Olema Creek in Marin County. Despite decades of efforts at habitat improvements, steelhead are not recovering. Of the other listed plants and animals, several are headed to extinction. The reasons are complex, but virtually all are fundamentally about the loss of, and the damage to, habitat. There is no more serious issue for our organization.
There are good reasons for a public process:
~ The city has hired experts to prepare habitat impact analysis. If you include public interest organizations in this review, they may have valuable information to impart much earlier in the process before the City becomes locked into a position that might be challenged at what will otherwise be, a much later stage of development.
This habitat analysis includes hydrologic modeling and other very complex methods to estimate the impact of different stream flow regimes upon listed species of salmon. This modeling involves assumptions that may not be shared by other experts. Independent experts in salmon biology, hydrology etc. will be available to the general public and to public interest organizations such as the Sierra Club.
The conclusions reached by the City's contractors and staff will be subject to review from these other experts. Long delays are possible in the review of the City's application while these differences are addressed. NMFS is obligated to consider all reasonable opinions and relevant data before they finalize the terms of any "take" permit (as defined in the Endangered Species Act) or HCP. As a matter of law, the public review period must be extended to assess new information that may be submitted.
~ Without a public process, doubts about the City's good intentions may grow as delays in the release of an HCP permit application stretch into the future. The City initiated this process before 2000. It is in the interest of the City to demonstrate that it is acting in good faith by taking concrete actions. In this case, that means both actively moving this HCP process forward and including an open public stakeholder process.
~ Similar "stakeholder" processes are customary. For a local example, consider that Santa Clara County created such a process with its ongoing HCP review, formally know as the Santa Clara Valley Habitat Plan. A member of the Santa Cruz County Group Executive Committee is acting in a professional capacity advising public advocates interested in this large scale HCP process in Santa Clara County.
Originally the City of Santa Cruz convened such a stakeholder process, but it was prematurely ended over a decade ago. I was among the approximately twenty people who attended what was apparently the first and last such public meeting.
The City and NMFS each have an interest in demonstrating that this long delayed HCP agreement is a tangible permit process, rather than simply a strategy being used to push the debate over the development of a desalination plant.
The Sierra Club regards these two issues as separate and independent decisions. We do not accept the premise that the construction of a seawater desalination plant is the only way to reduce city water diversions and deal with drought conditions so that "take", in theory, ceases to occur.
There is an associated issue that we want to bring to your attention. There are other major water users in the San Lorenzo River Basin. These include the San Lorenzo Valley Water District, the City of Scotts Valley Water Department, the Lompico County Water District and other public and private water rights holders. These interests are currently not involved in the development of this HCP. This may be a mistake, from a biological standpoint, as a practical legal matter, and simply from the point of view of rational watershed management.
Please begin an open stakeholder process for the development of your City-wide Habitat Conservation Plan. Your City has always prided itself as both being open to citizen involvement, and as taking a serious interest in the conservation of natural resources and the protection of our shared environment. Establishing a transparent stakeholder process for this HCP permit will demonstrate this to the community. This is an important issue of public policy.
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