Once in office, Congressman Jeff Denham wasted no time introducing legislation all too typical of the far right’s assault on the public interest. HR 869 looks innocuous enough on its surface. Touted as another, “jobs, jobs, jobs,” project, the Bill would raise the height of the Exchequer Dam. Denham claims,
The benefits of this law will provide up to 70,000 acre-feet of additional water, which can serve 1,700 homes and generate roughly 10,000 megawatts of clean, renewable electricity on an annual basis.
What Denham leaves out is his proposal is in direct violation of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. As Yokuts Sierra Club Chairman Brad Barker notes,
The National Wild and Scenic River designation was established to protect free-flowing rivers for posterity. Jeff Denham’s bill breaks the promises of that designation on the beautiful Merced River above Lake McClure. Passage of this bill would set a horrible precedent and do almost nothing to address the serious water issues facing California.
Stanislaus Audubon Society President Sal Salerno sent a letter of opposition to the bill to the Mariposa Board of Supervisors that read in part,
It has been estimated that 90% of California’s riparian habitat has been lost or compromised already by development, damming, and commercial activities. We are concerned that even more riparian habitation, essential for migrating and breeding bird populations, may be destroyed by the actions proposed in this legislation.
Dams are one of mankind’s greatest achievements, but they’re no panacea for ills resulting from rampant growth. Friant Dam, built in 1942, has been a major factor in the Northern San Joaquin Valley’s development as one of the world’s greatest agricultural regions. But overuse of San Joaquin River water resulted in a sixty mile stretch where it dried up annually, and recent litigation to restore the flow and salmon runs has been met with opposition by Denham and like-minded politicians Dennis Cardoza and Devin Nunes.
Prior to statehood, California’s rivers featured 113 species of native fish, and even thereafter, river boats plied the San Joaquin River and the salmon runs were so numerous it was said men could easily spear the big fish with pitch forks. Today, twenty-six species of fish are listed as threatened or endangered, seven are extinct, and the salmon run is gone. The San Joaquin Delta, fed in part by the San Joaquin River, is headed toward a catastrophic collapse.
Jeff Denham likes to tout his farming credentials and has every right to do so since he comes from a farming family. But his zeal to protect farmers would be more credible had he taken more public stands in favor of protecting our diminishing farmland. According to the California Farmland Trust, the San Joaquin Valley loses, “six square miles of farmland a year to urban development.” It’s hard to justify a need for more farmland water when farmland itself is diminishing rapidly. That’s probably why Denham talks about how many houses his proposal will serve, rather than how many farms.
It’s easily forgotten that water is a public resource and thus should be devoted to multiple uses. Farmland and housing deserve their full share of public water, but so do fisheries, nature lovers, whitewater rafters, canoeists, kayakers, hikers and native wildlife. And unless more citizens remind their elected representatives water must serve more than houses and farmland, we all face a future of diminishing public resources.
About The Author
Eric Caine formerly taught in the Humanities Department at Merced College. He was an original Community Columnist at the Modesto Bee, and wrote for The Bee for over twelve years.