Back in 2010, the State Water Resources Board released a study that said survival for salmon and the San Joaquin Delta depended on far greater flows from the local rivers, including the San Joaquin, Tuolumne, Stanislaus, and Merced Rivers.“
Apoplectic” doesn’t begin to describe the reaction from local water districts. Jeff Barton, assistant general manager for engineering and water resources at the Turlock Irrigation District said, “It would be devastating.”The Modesto Irrigation District’s (MID) general counsel, Tim O’Laughlin, said that, “The releases would mean that Don Pedro Reservoir would never fill again.” He added that enough river water could be lost to irrigate 125,000 to 200,000 acres of San Joaquin Valley farmland.
Today, MID officials and staff talk about surplus water, even though the Delta and salmon are as endangered as ever. In fact, they argue that if we don’t sell water, it will be taken for fish. They seem unable to admit the water will be taken anyway. What’s left will be their share, and it’s more than likely to be far less than they receive now.
The allocation of northern California water is one of the state’s great boondoggles. In many cases water is pumped at public expense to arid portions of the state mainly because it enriches speculators who long ago realized the value of using tax dollars to further their own interests. The folly of farming poor land at public expense is now exposed as we find increasingly severe problems with salinity and nitrate contamination in more and more areas of our San Joaquin Valley. And much of the water that isn’t used to farm unsuitable land goes to urban growth.
Meanwhile, Stanislaus County, with its unique combination of water, soils, climate, and world class farmers, is recording record harvests as the farm economy continues to boom even during one of the state’s and nation’s worst recessions ever.
Most opposition to restored salmon runs and a secure delta ecosystem comes in the form of denial. The most common criticism is that restored flows won’t necessarily bring back the salmon runs. Experts disagree, and there’s more evidence every day that they’re right about the relationship between flows and salmon.
Only a few months after removal of the hundred-year old Elwha Dam in Washington’s Olympic National Park, salmon and steelhead trout have returned to spawn. Californians are fortunate in that they won’t need major dam removal to restore salmon runs. In fact, if they’re wise, they’ll reduce flows to regions that have proven records of misuse and use state water more responsibly.
San Francisco, for example, is asking for more water despite a failure to implement conservation measures widely adopted by other west coast cities. Water barons like Stuart Resnick keep demanding more water for irrigation where harmful farming practices have both depleted and poisoned the aquifer. How much sense does it make to pump water south where it plays a central role in poisoning the landscape as opposed to keeping it where its value is multiplied exponentially by robust farms and fisheries?
At best, supporters of selling water for urban growth have developed severe cases of amnesia. At worst, they’re aiding and abetting policies that can only impair the economic recovery of our state and nation.