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Bruce Maiman: Another fish tale mucks up debate over the Stan

A steelhead trout after being removed from a net. Steelhead are the same species as rainbow trout, but steelhead migrate to the ocean then return while rainbow trout remain in freshwater.
A steelhead trout after being removed from a net. Steelhead are the same species as rainbow trout, but steelhead migrate to the ocean then return while rainbow trout remain in freshwater. Uncredited

There’s an old saw in journalism: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”

It’s especially sage advice these days. The constant stream of misinformation about California’s drought is like a bad game of Whack-A-Mole. Just as one falsehood is struck down, another pops up: California is flushing 4.8 billion gallons of water down the Stanislaus River to save six fish.

I first heard this from a Modesto-area radio host who called to interview me about a story I did for The Sacramento Bee (“To respond to California’s drought, we need to follow the facts,” April 14, Page A9) about water numbers being distorted. In no time, the inflammatory claim evolved into presumed fact as media outlets picked it up, even presenting online poll questions such as: “Should we use 4 billion gallons of water to save six fish?”

Well, when you put it that way.

Shrill online comments soon followed: “Government bureaucrats flushing hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of fresh water into the ocean to help six (yes 6) fish swim to the sea.” Actually, 4.8 billion gallons is 15,000 acre-feet.

It all began when the Manteca Bulletin reported on an email exchange between the National Marine Fisheries Service and Congressman Jeff Denham’s office. The Turlock Republican wanted population estimates for steelhead on the Stanislaus River. The fisheries service responded: “Based on weir sampling on the Stanislaus River during the previous 7 years, an average of 29 adult steelhead return from downstream areas (range 6-92). Based on rotary screw trap sampling, the number of downstream migrating smolts is on the order of several hundred during dry years and upwards of 1,000 during wet years.”

From this, someone somehow spun a tale about wasting water on six fish.

“That’s absolutely wrong,” said Maria Rea, assistant regional administrator at the fisheries service. “The Bulletin is saying this as if we said it. That’s nowhere near what we said.”

The number isn’t six; it’s 29, based on a seven-year average, but the water isn’t for them. It’s for their offspring, the smolt.

For absolute certainty, I asked Rea and Rhonda Reed, the lead fisheries service official for the San Joaquin river basin, the either-or question: “Is the water for the 29 adult steelhead returning from downstream – aka ‘six fish’ – or is it for the several hundred to 1,000 migrating to the Pacific Ocean?”

“The several hundred trying to migrate to the ocean,” both said.

Steelhead and salmon produce between 3,000 and 6,000 eggs each. That’s one of their strategies for survival, as mortality rates for the offspring are very high.

Some argue that a better way to protect them would be to thin out predator species such as striped bass. But UC Davis fish biologist Peter Moyle told me: “Despite repeated studies that show predator control is rarely effective and often backfires, it is frequently proposed as a simple solution to complex problems.”

And like most simple solutions, it ignores the broader picture. These “pulse flows” of water that push smolt downstream serve multiple purposes. They cool water for freshwater fish, provide water downstream for irrigation and keep ocean salinity out of the Delta, keeping it usable for agriculture and drinkable for us.

Yet all we ever seem to hear is that we’re putting fish over people.

Could the email’s somewhat wonky language have caused confusion? “To be simpler and clearer, instead of saying ‘steelhead returning from downstream areas,’ it actually should say, ‘steelhead coming back from the ocean,’” Reed said.

I’m no fish scientist, but it took just two phone conversations to clear that up. It’s too late, though. Someone will surely repeat the six-fish canard, proving the old maxim: “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”

But even that quote needs fact-checking. Though often attributed to him, there’s no evidence Mark Twain ever said it, a delicious irony that Twain and probably your mother would have appreciated.

Maiman is a frequent host on KFBK radio and lives in Rocklin. Email: brucemaiman@ gmail.com. On Twitter @Maimzini.

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