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California's Salmon Barely Survived the 20th Century, (But Will They Vanish Before the Next One?)

Though fishing industry observers fear for the worst, some fisheries advocates can see a path forward.



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Even the distant Trinity River, a major Klamath tributary, feels the pressure of these growing industries. The Trinity is tapped by an 11-mile-long tunnel through a mountain that empties into the Sacramento drainage. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation drilled this tube in the 1960s specifically to augment the federal agency's Central Valley Project, which delivers water via the Delta pumps to San Joaquin Valley farms.

Farmers in the Westlands Water District — a nucleus of almond and pistachio industry growth — reap the benefits of these federal water systems. To meet the almost-nonstop water demand of its most valuable crops, Westlands has bullied hard against pumping restrictions. Right now, Westlands farmers are poised to secure a new water contract that many suspect was won with the help of U.S. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt, who used to work as a lawyer and lobbyist for Westlands. The deal could mean more than a million acre-feet of water each year — enough to supply one to two million average California households — for a region that was established on the premise that it would be irrigated with surplus water. Westlands also scored about 100,000 acre-feet more water each year after state and federal officials quietly signed a new water pumping plan on December 12, 2018.

Statewide in 2017, the farming industry logged $50 billion in cash sales and $8.9 billion in profits. Almost half of the state's crops by value — and two-thirds of the almonds — are exported abroad, a reality that belies the often-heard story that environmental regulations threaten Californians' food supply. "If they were growing food that mostly stayed on our grocery store shelves, I wouldn't bitch, but so much of their production is going for export, and it's at the expense of our salmon," Hudson said.

The conditions beleaguering the Delta and the rivers feeding it are complicated, but it often becomes simplified as a conflict of fish against farms. After all, river water that carries a cluster of salmon smolts into San Pablo Bay does not directly profit a farmer, while water that is ushered over the rootzone of a pistachio tree could translate into less fish in the ocean. 

Many farmers south of the Delta claim that laws meant to protect fish are crippling their industry.

"Farmers in California have it tough these days," wrote Westlands farmer Ted Sheely, who owns and irrigates thousands of acres of land, in a 2016 column for the Global Farmer Network. "Despite recent rainfall from El Niño," he went on, "we continue to suffer through one of the worst droughts in history. We still don't have enough water to feed our crops."

Sheely grows pistachios, which saw a record crop in 2016 — nearly 900 million pounds.

In a Nov. 17, 2019, column, Sheely — who did not reply to an email sent to his company, Horizon Nut — called out water managers for "pumping vast volumes of this precious resource [water] into the Pacific Ocean for the sake of the delta smelt." He's referring to the small fish that was once the most abundant species in the Delta but is now nearly extinct. Scientists consider its demise a clear indicator of ecological turmoil in the Delta.

But water is not pumped into the ocean, nor are rivers artificial impositions on the landscape or economy. Rivers flow naturally to the ocean, and this alone has simple benefits, including holding saltwater at bay and protecting the very pumps that south-of-Delta farmers rely on.

Water flowing into San Pablo and San Francisco bays also flushes contaminants out of the system and supports shoreline wetlands. Freshwater inflow also creates estuary conditions favorable to herring, halibut, and Dungeness crab, all of which use San Francisco Bay as a critical spawning ground.

For baby salmon, the benefits of lively rivers are obvious.

"That water gets the little fish out to the ocean," said Don Portz, manager of the San Joaquin River Restoration Program, which is currently attempting to repopulate the Central Valley's most impaired river with threatened spring-run Chinook. The effort, which is just getting started, was born from a successful lawsuit by NRDC against upstream farming districts that completely diverted the river in the 1950s.

Not everyone is thrilled by the idea of flowing rivers. In a November opinion piece in the Daily Breeze, author Steven Greenhut complained about environmental efforts to protect natural waterways.

"When it comes to water supplies," he wrote, "environmentalists always demand 'more' water for habitat preservation — they're never satisfied with any compromise proposal." He lashed at those who demand "more water for unrestricted river flows."

River flows in California are anything but unrestricted, of course, and the plight of the San Joaquin is just one clear example.

The Myth of Coequal Goals

Big Ag's claims that environmental water allocations hamstring their industry may appear disingenuous, but even state policy deems reliable water delivery and preserving natural resources to be "coequal goals." The notion is false, often just paying lip service to California's environmental values while generally failing to honor them. While government agencies have built and maintained ever-more-complex infrastructure for delivering water to farmers and cities, wetlands and watersheds have deteriorated or vanished.

In fact, numerous state and federal laws that call explicitly for protecting fish and their rivers have been essentially ignored for decades. For example, Fish and Game Code 5937, law since 1915, prohibits dams from harming fish. Another seemingly abandoned code in the same pages, 5931, requires that every dam in the state be furnished with fish ladders, or some means for fish to move past the barriers, though few dams are. Yet another failed law, the Central Valley Project Improvement Act, mandates that water managers do what it takes to bring salmon and steelhead numbers back to twice their historic populations. The CVPIA is now 27 years old.


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