With rivers running dry, reservoir levels dropping, and no rain in sight, it was probably inevitable that local politicians and their allies try to sell the tattered old false dilemma of, “Fish vs People.”
Back in the 1980s and 90s it was “Owls vs People.” That was when the Endangered Species Act was invoked to save old forest habitat for Spotted Owls. Foresters and others whose jobs depended on logging claimed the government had chosen owls before people.
Now, absurd as it is, the cry, “Fish vs People,” rings out at every gathering where people learn that California’s long binge on “paper water” has come to end. Then, the words are repeated in headlines and news reports throughout the state.
The “State,” and “the Feds,” are the culprits in the blame game. It is they who have chosen fish. And, more often than not, they have chosen lowly “smelt” over people, particularly galling to those for whom smelt are nothing more than stinky old trash fish.
Though it’s true the “State” and the “Feds” share plenty of blame for the current situation, it’s not because they’ve chosen fish over people. What they’ve done instead is listen to the people.
Over many decades of controversy and debate, the people have made it clear that they oppose endangering an entire plant or animal species with extinction. The people are also against killing rivers and fresh water ecosystems in the name of almond orchards and housing tracts.
And while Delta Smelt are indeed endangered by California’s mad thirst, so are local Chinook Salmon and Steelhead Trout. Among the greatest defenders of these and other fish are the fishermen, also known as businessmen or even independent contractors, who make their living from harvesting what should be a renewable resource.
One of the great fresh water ecosystems of North America, the San Joaquin Delta, is also threatened by California’s current water policy. Delta farmers, fisherman, nature lovers and recreational users are all people. Furthermore, they’re people who favor more water for fish and the Delta ecosystem.
The first rule in any political crisis is, “deflect blame.” So it’s not the policies that promoted population growth in deserts, not the planting of hundreds of thousands of acres of permanent crops in places without reliable water supplies, not the speculation, not the wishful thinking, and not the political machinations that have brought us to this pass. Not at all. It’s the fish.
It’s also the “Feds” and the “State” and the “Enviros” and any other abstract entity that can be assigned blame so that local authorities can continue to dodge the hard questions about their own responsibility for our water woes.
Once upon a time people saved rotten fruits and vegetables as the proper responses for such rhetorical nonsense as, “Fish vs People.” Today, playing the “Fish vs People” card is a sure crowd pleaser, guaranteed to enable even more of the deflection and denial that continue to make California water policy one of the west’s grand failures.