California's war on endangered species: Why its most water-dependent creatures are worth saving

"There is water enough in the desert if you live properly," conservation biologist Christopher Norment tells Salon

By Lindsay Abrams
Published October 12, 2014 10:58AM (EDT)
   (AP/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
(AP/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Even before the region descended into a years-long drought, it was never easy being an aquatic species in the deserts of the western United States. But as need to allocate California's dwindling water resources intensified this year, it suddenly became necessary to justify the continued existence of some of the state's most endangered species. House Republicans in February attempted to override the Endangered Species Act in the interest of pumping more water out of the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta, calling the federally threatened delta smelt, which their bill would have doomed to extinction, a "stupid little fish."

Conservation biologist Christopher Norment begs to disagree. "There is water enough in the desert if you live properly," he writes, and the real problem comes from the "bulldozers and pipelines, pumps and wells, ditches and dams, lawns and lakes, fields of alfalfa and fields of houses, and the thousands and millions of people living a few miles or a few hundred miles away from the waters," — in short, from our tendency to live as though water were a limitless resource.

"Relicts of a Beautiful Sea" is Norment's lyrical natural history of six Great Basin species — the Inyo Mountains slender salamander, the black toad and four types of pupfishes — that are dependent on water and yet live in a place where that resource is in alarmingly short supply. All are toeing the line of extinction, and are so rare that you've probably never heard of them. But they're worth protecting, Norment argues, and the choice to do so doesn't have to come at the great expense some hard-line Republicans suggest.

Norment spoke with Salon about the personal inspiration he takes from these resilient species, and about the reasons — beyond mere practicality — why preserving biodiversity continues to matter. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

I wanted to start with your approach. How did you choose to feature these six species? What it was about them that you found unique and book-worthy? 

To go back just a little bit, my first job as a biologist way back in the '70s was working in the Death Valley area. I was focused there on large mammals. But when I was up in Death Valley, I really grew to love that portion of the American Southwest, the Mojave Desert, and when it came time for a sabbatical, I wanted to go back to that part of the world. So there was sort of this landscape aesthetic that was really important to me. But I also wanted to work on species that were really different from the ones that I typically worked on — I wanted to get away from birds and mammals. At the same time, I started hearing stories about the Devil's Hole pupfish and some of the role that it's played in conservation controversies in that part of the world. I've also had a fascination with species that live on or in islands. So as I started working out there in 2009 and 2010, the species that I wanted to focus on just started adding themselves to the list.

The first one was the the Inyo Mountain slender salamander, and as I talk about in the book, I remember walking up into this heat-blasted canyon, and I knew that the species was supposed to be there because I'd read some of the papers on it, but to actually flip a rock and find one of these creatures that is so dependent on water ... I mean, there is a trickle of water there, and that's where they're restricted to. They just shouldn't be there. There are only two desert salamanders in the world, both of them are in the Mojave Desert, and it was just stunning to me. I was overwhelmed, in a sense, by it. And very curious about them, and so I started exploring that species.

So they told one story about the American Southwest and about water, and their sort of survival, if you will, but then there were other kinds of stories out there. Like there was a story of near-extinction in the case of the Owens pupfish and now the Devil's Hole pupfish. But there is also a story about how a seemingly insignificant species occurring in one very, very small part of the world can have very, very strong effects on development, on water use. I mean, the Devil's Hole pupfish — this tiny little creature that weighs about one raisin, half of a gram, and is about an inch and a half long — has dramatically affected how water is used in the Southwest. I mean, that's a very interesting, and to me, compelling, story.

And the Salt Creek and Cottonball Marsh pupfishes are evolved from freshwater fish, and yet they live in environments that may be twice or even three times as salty as the ocean. You walk out on the salt pan on Death Valley, and you find fish out there. There's something to me that is just spectacular about it. I thought I was going to do a typical scientific research project, but I realized several things: first of all, logistically, given the fact that I'm back in New York State, it would be very hard to do this kind of intensive research that would result in a series of technical papers. But also, there was something about their mystery that was very attractive to me, and I thought, "This is what I'd like to focus on." I'd like to focus on their stories, and tell their stories in a way that hopefully will draw other people into them, make them concerned about these species, and by extension, other little-known species, the ones that aren't the charismatic mega-vertebrates.

That problem you mention of allocating these limited water resources from humans in order to protect the pupfish is becoming more controversial as California's drought worsens. I'm wondering, how did you even begin to draw that line? How do you decide how much we can afford to allocate to a species like that?

Well first of all, as with so many problems in our world, I'm very wary of false dichotomies. In other words, it's either the pupfish or it's the people. I don't think it's ever that easy. To me, what the pupfish and these other species are saying is, if we're going to persist in this environment, there's going to have to be wise water use on the part of people. And water use in that part of the world has often not been very wise. And it's gotten us into a lot of problems. So to me, theses species are a valuable resource, and they can tell us about how best to use water and how to use it in a way that is sustainable and that can hopefully nourish the people of California, the people of Nevada, the people of Arizona. But if we don't — if the drought continues, water levels keep going down in the Colorado River basin, groundwater keeps getting depleted in California, etc. — then, alright, we kill off these species, but we're still going to have the same problems, only we're not going to have these species that, to me, are valuable and worth protecting.

So I think there can be both: these species can persevere, and humans also can have their water. Maybe not as much as they want, but hopefully as much as they need. I really do believe that there's water enough in the desert if you use it properly. But it's going to take some shift in terms of how we think about water and its use. And I think actually Karen Piper made this point in her interview: she said that when we think about water, we don't think about it in terms of local or even regional carrying capacity. We think about it sort of almost at a much larger level, in other words, if Las Vegas doesn't have enough water that's available to it locally or even from the Colorado River, well, we'll just get it from somewhere else. We'll get it from northern Nevada, we'll go ahead and deplete their water resources, and on and on, well then maybe there's this Mississippi River, maybe there's a Great Lakes, maybe there's a Columbia River, etc. As Las Vegas had been developing, if they were thinking within the context of not depleting their local groundwater, and also not over-using the Colorado River, maybe they would be in a better situation than they are now.

A lot of the situations you explore in your book examine these extremely local conflicts. I'm thinking about Gary Giocomini, this person you write about who's grappling with the fact that he could be responsible personally for wiping a species off the planet.

Right, and Giacomini's a rancher: he wants water for his cows, for alfalfa, whatever. But when you actually sit down and talk to people like him, it's not that they don't have a concern for those species and that they don't want them to persist. But of course they also want to make a living from the land. In the case of the Owens pupfish, I personally think that there's enough water for his cows and there's enough water for the fish. Maybe not quite as much water as Garry would want, maybe not quite as much water for the pupfish as I might want, but we can reach some kind of a compromise. Now it may not always be practical; there may be cases where it won't happen, but I think in a lot of cases it can.

There was that House Resolution last year, the Sacramento of San Joaquin Valley Emergency Water Delivery Act. And basically what it was doing was to preempt state and federal endangered species laws that protect the delta smelt. And my view, and a lot of people's views, is it would do nothing to alleviate California's long-term water shortages. It was opposed by the Obama administration, California's governor, state agencies, etc. Luckily it stalled in the Senate and has never become law, but to me, it's sort of the easy answer: let's blame the endangered species. Let's blame environmental laws for some of these issues.

There's an ideological factor there. 

Right. Oh yeah, I mean, drought is interpreted ideologically; it's the same way that climate change is interpreted ideologically. And so back in 2009, the Wall Street Journal talked about the "government-made drought," and if you go and look at the website of the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources, they say basically the same thing. Humans don't like to think that certain aspects of nature are beyond their control. And what happens with precipitation in California and other parts of the arid West, well, we don't have a lot to say about it. I guess we have a lot to say about how we use the water, but we'd better use it in a wise way.

You also point out some ways in which the regulatory systems in place to protect these species aren't quite as effective as they could be. Giacomini said something to you about how we "protected the pupfish into oblivion."

Well, yeah, and you need to be careful there. I think, to me, one of the problems is some of these laws are not very flexible, in terms of their interpretation and implementation. And I think that's particularly true at the state of California level. I don't think inflexibility is a good thing. I think that we have to be able to adapt our management to conditions and we have to give people some flexibility in how they use resources and how people interpret and implement regulations. And I know a lot of these people working for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and people working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, they want to reach agreements with individuals, private individuals, whomever, to manipulate the environment for the animals. And sometimes the regulatory environment is just too cumbersome and it leads to a lot of frustration, and it doesn't necessarily do anything for the species that these laws and regulations are meant to protect.

I mean, I'm a great fan of the federal Endangered Species Act, I think it's a very powerful piece of environmental legislation, I think it's done a huge amount of good. But that doesn't mean it's perfect or that it's always enforced in the right way. And I think over time, the federal government has realized, okay, we have got to do a better job of bringing more people on board here. And so I think the federal government has gotten more adept at working with private land owners, state governments, local governments, etc. But I don't know what's going to happen in 10 or 20 years when, or if, water becomes even more scarce in parts of our country. I would just hate to see these species sacrificed for short-term ... I don't even want to use the word "gain," but for short-term relief, I guess, from some of our water woes. And I really believe that it doesn't have to happen. One of the analogies I've been thinking about is Detroit, and how one of the things they've talked about is selling off their art collection. It'd be more like, Detroit's in bankruptcy and what they're going to do is they're going to burn their art collection. In the same way, we're facing water shortages and we're going to destroy these species that have been around for, in some cases, millions of years, to what end?

You're sort of answering my next question. It's very clear why you care about these species' survival, but in the book you keep coming up against this question about why should anyone else care about this species that most don't even know about, most don't even get to see. Have you found a satisfactory answer that might work for the larger public?

I don't know. I mean, I don't think there's any one answer that's going to work for everybody. And there are some people none of the answers will ever work for. But what I'm looking for in part is a different answer. There are a lot of standard answers that conservation biologists and environmental activists have come up with to justify preserving species and ecosystems, biodiversity, what have you. And some of these are, for example, what people call "option value." In other words, an endangered species, let's say the pupfish, might have certain biomolecules that we could use on down the line to help treat cancer, heart disease, whatever. And I talk about some of these in the book. There's a whole class of molecules, called heat shock proteins, that are molecular chaperones that have been suggested might have therapeutic value. And so these fish live in these very stressful thermal environments, very stressful saline environments, and perhaps they have these heat shock proteins that will help us out — although we don't know what those are, and there are certainly other related species where we might find some of the same molecules. Then they also talk about ecosystem services: things like soaking up carbon dioxide, decreasing the effects of pollution, providing breeding habitat for fish species, etc., if we're talking about entire ecosystems. And yet these species are rare, their influence on ecosystems are going to be pretty minimal, so they're not going to help us out there. I think you can argue one other thing that is often put up as a value of biodiversity, which is the canary in the coal mine: these guys are sentinels. And I do subscribe to that, I think that, like I said earlier, that a number of these species might tell us something about how to use water wisely. If their populations are safe, if they're persevering in their environment, as tied as they are to water, maybe we're using the resource properly.

But I want a different kind of argument. I want something that, as I say, works with a rancher in Lone Pine in the Owens Valley, or works with a waitress in Las Vegas, something that they might hang onto and find a reason to care about these things. And I guess sort of the shortest way of saying this is that we need our role models, and life can be joyous and wonderful, but at times it can also be hard and miserable and lonely. And at the same time, we want to be at home in the world, we want to be comforted, we want to have hope, and for me, if you know the stories of some of these species and what they have endured in the course of their history, the way that they have persevered in the face of terrible adversity, while at the same time in many ways being vulnerable ... when I go out and I see them, I have hope. I mean, I've dealt with some pretty difficult things in my life, just like most of us have.

Are you comfortable talking about the things you brought up in the book? 

I used to be a little uncomfortable, but now I don't have a problem with it. So knowing these species' stories, seeing them in the wild, that they have persevered, gives me hope and in a sense, they're role models for me. And in the same way, as I talk about with the Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, seeing ecosystems restored is sort of a metaphor for human restoration. Ash Meadows in the late '60s and early '70s was completely devastated by agriculture. This is an area where there's four inches of rain per year, and they wanted to grow alfalfa, some cotton, and raise cattle. And they lowered pumps into the springs there and sucked the springs dry — many of them basically devastated the landscape around these springs. This was in an area where it's six miles on a side, it's about 36 square miles, there are or were 29 organisms, species or subspecies that occurred nowhere else in the world. It's the highest biodiversity anywhere in North America north of the Mexican border. And so it's this magnificent island of endemic species, and it was devastated.

What happened in 1984, through the hard work of the Nature Conservancy and some other people, Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge came into being. Particularly in the last 20 years, many of the springs have been restored. And when you go out to these places, and you walk in them now and you know what they were like, it's almost incredible, in the full meaning of the word. It's like you can't believe that these things have been brought back to a semblance of their original state. They're not perfect, but they're wonderful. It's been a lot of hard work on the part of a lot of people, and it's meant a fair amount of money, but not all that much in the context of what it costs to do business these days. And so when I walk to these places and I see them, I feel restored. The effects of my stepfather's abuse seem more distant, and I think that it's possible to recover in many ways. So that's kind of the story that I want to tell.

And like you say, most people are not going to see the majority of the species. Some of them are just hard to find, hard to get to their places, some of them you almost can't see, like the Devil's Hole pupfish. The ones that are at Ash Meadows, most of those are accessible to people, but very few people are going to see them. And yet, I hope their stories are compelling, and I hope that people who read the book will be in some ways taken by these species. And by extension other species, I mean, I know there are a lot of species out there. I'm never going to see most of them, but I can still value them, and what they might tell me about my place in the world.

But it takes knowledge. I mean, I often wonder if I could just take a person who couldn't give a damn about a lot of these species, and think this thing's a complete waste of money — and there are a lot of folks out in that part of the world who think that. Not everybody, but there are folks — and if I could just take one of them out there and sit by one of these springs for a couple of hours and just talk, I mean, could I convince them this is worth our time and our money?

Do you think you could?

I don't know. I don't know.  I've never tried it. I mean, some people, no. But other people, perhaps. If it's in the abstract I think it could be difficult, but if it's on a one-to-one basis, it might work. I'd actually like to try that sometime.

Lindsay Abrams

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