Our View: Salmon belong where they can truly thrive

Global warming is real. The Arctic is melting, and temperatures are rising. Last year was the hottest on record for our planet, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; 2015 has been even hotter.

This is old news, and the climate-change deniers will, as usual, trot out their conspiracy theories to refute what is obvious to thousands of scientists and casual observers around the globe.

It’s also becoming obvious to another species: Chinook salmon. It’s time that we recognize that despite our best efforts, salmon might not be a viable species on the San Joaquin River and its tributaries.

Though considered a hardy fish by biologists, salmon have been decimated by the drought and hot temperatures. The Sacramento Bee reported Oct. 28 that for “the second straight year, huge numbers of juvenile winter-run Chinook salmon appear to have baked to death in the Sacramento River because of California’s drought-stretched water supplies, bringing the endangered species a step closer to extinction.”

This decimation has occurred despite the best efforts of federal officials to save salmon – and at the expense of irrigation water for farmers. Officials, in fact, sharply curtailed water flows out of Lake Shasta last spring in an attempt to keep sufficient cold water in the system to support the fish.

The Sacramento is California’s biggest river, at least four times greater than the San Joaquin. What if the “new normal” is higher temperatures and more frequent drought? If the Sacramento can’t sustain healthy salmon runs without crippling farmers, what are the prospects that the San Joaquin River – with so much less water and far higher temperatures – can support spring-run salmon again?

Don’t misunderstand us. The San Joaquin – with its myriad dams, channels, pumps and levees – is one of the most fractured and developed rivers in the world. It was pillaged by the federal government to expand the Valley’s agriculture-based economy, to the point that it ceased to flow. The river deserves to be restored – for the good of residents and the environment.

But the herculean effort to get water flowing through dried-up sections of California’s second-longest river has been tied completely to bringing back salmon. That is a colossal mistake. Salmon do not thrive in water above 70 degrees; they do not survive in water above 74. The focus instead should be on the river’s overall health, not the viability of a single species.

The same is true for the San Joaquin’s tributaries. The Tuolumne’s fall run in 2014 had 438 salmon; on the Merced it was just over 1,700, while the Stanislaus had 3,060 salmon. While those numbers are better than some previous years, they hardly signal a healthy fishery.

Since beginning in 2009, the restoration project has been plagued by missed deadlines, a failure to fulfill coequal goals that include returning restoration water to farmers and a price tag that is now $1.5 billion. And we have yet to save the salmon on the San Joaquin.

If we are going to save California’s salmon, our resources must be focused on rivers where the fish has the best chance to thrive. This isn’t new thinking; fish biologists have been saying it for two decades. It is the environmental community, not the scientific, that insists the fish must be returned to the San Joaquin.

Before Friant Dam was built north of Fresno in the 1940s, the San Joaquin had North America’s southern-most salmon run. If it isn’t already a warm-water fishery, it will be soon. In the midst of global warming, trying to expand the range of salmon – instead of saving them where they are – is a fool’s errand.