In California, drought and mismanagement of remaining scarce water supplies is killing a key part of the ocean—the salmon that commercial and recreational fishermen rely on. Meanwhile, in the San Joaquin Valley, inland from the coast, nut orchards that depend on imported water from salmon streams in the northern part of the state go on for miles.
At least some from the San Joaquin Valley, like Newsweek op-ed contributor Victor David Hanson (June 24, California Is Running on Empty), don’t seem to know or care much about salmon, or the coastal and inland communities that depend on them. Salmon fishermen in the Golden Gate Salmon Association were taken aback reading Hanson decry water set aside for fish and fishing communities. Hanson’s view seems narrowly tailored to represent the interests of a small handful of agriculture operatives.
When industrial growers can gross $10,000 an acre growing nuts while using someone else’s water, why would they care about the ocean, or salmon, or fishing communities? The view is quite different for those of us who make a living catching salmon or work in support industries, or who fish recreationally to supply the dinner table. We see and feel the cost to our salmon runs every day we’re on the water.
As usual, when spring came, the days lengthened, sunlight increased and spring winds stirred up nutrients and microscopic life from the deep waters off the California coast. Zooplankton and phytoplankton proliferated, small forage fish gorged on them. Sea birds, whales and other wildlife feasted on the forage fish and all was more or less normal—except the salmon were missing. One possible reason: drought conditions in California’s rivers and streams three years ago, when salmon would have hatched and grown before heading downstream to the sea.
Here in California, we live at the southern boundary of king salmon habitat. In the ocean, these salmon range as far south as Los Angeles in some years, but they spawn no further south than the rivers that feed San Francisco Bay. The salmon from California’s Central Valley provides a multibillion-dollar industry that employs tens of thousands, both in California and in Oregon. That’s why the Oregon congressional delegation recently sent a letter to congressional colleagues expressing concerns shared by Northern California congressional members about drought legislation that could harm California Sacramento Valley salmon.
After the great salmon runs of the Columbia River, which drains Washington, Oregon and Idaho, Northern California’s Sacramento Valley produces the second biggest salmon runs on the west coast of the continental United States. At least until now. Those now calling for weaker environmental protections and siphoning off even more salmon water would throw our salmon fishery away.
Politicians from the San Joaquin Valley are falling over each other to demand more water for a handful of major growers, mostly in three of California’s 58 counties. To most Californians who treasure the state’s natural resources and heritage, this looks like short term gain for a very few at a long term cost to the rest of us.
Contrary to the claims coming from the San Joaquin Valley that environmental protections are costing billions of gallons, the State Water Board tells us only two percent of Central Valley runoff will be dedicated to fisheries protections in 2015.
You hear some San Joaquin Valley growers talk about fish versus farmers, delta smelt, blah, blah, blah. They seldom acknowledge or admit that the drought is causing the water shortage we’re all experiencing. Instead, they want to blame the drought on fisheries protections. Make no mistake, this drought is hell on all of us, including the farm hands who work as hard as fishermen.
In 2014, California lost an entire generation of salmon on the Sacramento River because of drought and water mismanagement. Adult fish returned from the ocean to the Central Valley to reproduce only to be greeted by river water too low and hot to hatch fertilized salmon eggs. Those lethal temperatures were caused by a lack of cold water in a key upstream reservoir. The cold water had been given to others.
Most Chinook salmon live three years before spawning and dying. If eggs die from hot water three years in a row, salmon runs can be driven to extinction and 2015 is shaping up to repeat the disaster experienced in 2014. Another generation of salmon could be lost this fall, again due to river temperatures so hot they kill salmon eggs. By most accounts, this could have been avoided but for decisions made by federal water managers, under pressure to shift even more water away from dying salmon to a few powerful growers.
We Americans decided to wipe out the great bison herds on the plains, mostly to starve the Native Americans, but also because bison weren’t cows. Cows lend themselves to being someone’s private property; bison don’t. Cows mind fences; bison don’t. Cows can be easily controlled, herded, fed and slaughtered. Bison, not so much. Nor salmon.
We woke up one day and some 65 million bison were gone. In hindsight, most would agree this wasn’t right. Now we’re poised to do the same to salmon. Like bison, salmon belong to no one and at the same time they belong to us all.
Responding to the drought means finding solutions that address the real cause of water shortages and that don’t needlessly abandon the environment, fisheries and fishing communities. Our salmon runs deserve our care, even when it’s dry.
History will judge how we did when it was our turn to run things, and history is likely to be harsh on those who put short term financial gain for the few before preservation of salmon—a unique, valuable and highly beneficial part of the state’s natural resources that belong to all of us.
This article was previously published by Newsweek: http://www.newsweek.com/california-drought-pits-salmon-runs-against-nut-orchards-352324