Mike Dunbar

Who will go extinct first, salmon or Valley farmers?

A Worth Your Fight sign is pictured near a canal Sept. 21 on McHenry Avenue south of Ladd Road in Modesto, Calif.
A Worth Your Fight sign is pictured near a canal Sept. 21 on McHenry Avenue south of Ladd Road in Modesto, Calif. jlee@modbee.com

Here, on the front lines of the state’s recently declared water war, we have more questions than ammunition.

Is the State Water Resources Control Board serious? Is the water board even in charge? Was Gov. Jerry Brown’s call for “voluntary agreements,” instead of regulatory demands, a suggestion or an order? Who will go extinct first – salmon or farmers?

OK, that’s a rhetorical question; salmon have a huge head start. But the race isn’t over. To recap:

▪ Battle was enjoined Sept. 15 when the water board re-released its justification for taking more water from the Merced, Tuolumne and Stanislaus rivers – which combine to create the San Joaquin before it reaches the Delta. In the original 2012 Substitute Environmental Document, the state demanded 35 percent of unimpaired flows from all three rivers for salmon’s sake. The re-released version grew (from 1,200 pages to 3,100), as did the state’s water demands. Regulators now want 40 to 50 percent of the rivers – up to 2  1/2 times more than the state takes now.

Such demands are a clear threat to a way of life that has evolved here over the past 150 years.

▪ Howls of outrage arose across the entire Northern San Joaquin Valley – with good reason. The state guessed its water grab would cause $64 million in economic damage across three counties. People who live here say impacts will run into the hundreds of millions in each. Yet, in Sacramento, professional environmentalists insist it’s still not enough – they want 60 percent, farming be damned. Both sides got 60 days to respond.

▪ Four days later, the first response arrived – from Gov. Brown. He told the water board he wants the Natural Resources Agency to start working out “voluntary agreements” with water districts, and he wants a comprehensive plan including the Sacramento River and Delta, not just the San Joaquin’s tributaries.

That looks like a lifeline, but we’re never sure. Brown is the most astute politician in living memory and everyone knows his highest water priority is the two tunnels that will send much of the Sacramento’s flow south before it ever reaches the Delta. Only higher San Joaquin flows will be left to keep the Delta from getting salty.

▪ Les Grober, one of the state’s top water staffers, bravely came to Modesto to explain the board’s thinking. But when questioned about developing a comprehensive plan, as the governor demanded, he deflected. That would be in “Phase 2”; he could speak only of Phase 1.

Phase 1 is taking our region’s water. Phase 2 is re-evaluating how much flows down the Sacramento and out of the Delta. But there’s also a Phase 3 – a “water rights proceeding,” in the words of one state staffer. Those should be chilling words for any California farmer. Yes, state officials always point out that 50 percent of the Sacramento already goes to the ocean. Nothing to worry about, Wheatland.

But last February, environmentalists demanded even more and colder Sacramento water be used to help 500,000 salmon reach the sea. Front and center in those demands was a Bay Area salmon-fishing group, repeating its claim that fishing is a $1.4 billion industry statewide and implying the salmon catch is as economically important as agriculture – an absurd assertion.

California’s entire commercial salmon catch in 2014 was worth $8.1 million – about half the value of crabs ($17.4 million). That’s about a fifth of what Stanislaus County farmers got for almond hulls last year. If fishing is a $1.4 billion industry, then ag should also count the contents of every backyard garden and flower pot in the state.

▪ Finally, the same day Grober was being grilled in Modesto, two highly respected fish scientists conducted a symposium in Davis. Professors Peter Moyle and Jason Baumsteiger explained that fish owing their existence to conservation efforts, even in natural environments, are already extinct – humans have interfered. Fish raised in hatcheries and spawning in gravel beds shaped by front loaders are little more than aquarium specimens.

It’s already happened on our rivers. FishBio biologists say the 10,000 salmon that spawned on the Stanislaus River last fall were all hatchery fish. They same is true for the few fish found on the Tuolumne and Merced. They wandered up our rivers because they didn’t know where else to go.

The salmon on the San Joaquin aren’t genetically distinct from the salmon spawning on the Sacramento or Russian or Klamath rivers. There’s very little difference between them and the 720 million pounds of salmon caught in the Pacific Ocean each year. Salmon aren’t endangered or even rare (unless undercooked).

After vast water releases failed to help fish migrate last year, no one here has faith in the state’s single-focus salmon solution – ever-increasing flows.

Hicham Eltal, Merced Irrigation District deputy general manager, told Grober that his district has run the environmental models. “If you use 50 percent unimpaired flows, it won’t be enough,” said Eltal. “If you use 60 percent flows … it won’t be enough.” In fact, even 100 percent of the Merced’s flow won’t work.

Under the state’s assumptions, he said, “the fish are doomed.”

Eltal said his agency doesn’t accept that verdict, and will keep trying to help salmon survive – as must every water agency in the region.

Farmers might not be so lucky. Eltal noted they will either “crash” immediately under the state’s flow demands, or crash in the not-so-distant future under new state groundwater requirements.

Yes, the salmon have a head start on extinction. The only way farmers can avoid the same fate is to resist, but also commit to helping our rivers recover.