Mike Dunbar

When it comes to water, what’s worse: Conspiracy or incompetence?

A California Department of Wildlife staffer holds emerging salmon in his hands. Virtually all of the salmon found on the San Joaquin River and its tributaries were hatched from eggs in hatcheries like this one on the Merced River.
A California Department of Wildlife staffer holds emerging salmon in his hands. Virtually all of the salmon found on the San Joaquin River and its tributaries were hatched from eggs in hatcheries like this one on the Merced River. The Modesto Bee

What’s worse? Believing in a conspiracy theory or embracing incompetence?

Let’s start with our favorite “conspiracy.” Turns out, it’s Felicia Marcus’ favorite, too.

This theory says the State Water Resources Control Board isn’t being honest in explaining why it wants to double or triple the amount of water it takes from our region. The state says its only goal is to help native fish species flourish. But many people believe the state is conspiring to send more water from here to faraway places. Sending our “water wealth” (to quote the Modesto arch) somewhere else sends the wealth with it.

“Ridiculous,” said Marcus, who chairs the state water board and who visited the Sacramento Bee editorial board last week. She insisted the state’s flow demands on the Tuolumne, Merced and Stanislaus rivers have nothing to do with the conduit for that transfer, the twin tunnels that Gov. Jerry Brown wants to build. It’s all about the fish.

“There’s the conspiracy theory that we’re only doing it for that, and that’s not true,” said Marcus. “It’s ridiculous.” She added there are “no sacred flows” on the rivers. And the “tone of the combatants on both sides just makes my heart sick.”

Ours, too; but for different reasons. We’re the ones who will lose the most.

We know other regions suffered during the drought, and our region went beyond the state’s mandates to conserve. We also know previous generations of Stanislaus, Merced and San Joaquin residents invested, with the state’s blessing, to harness our rivers. They built dams and canals to halt floods and bring water to fields, orchards and vineyards; they turned a desert into a “paradise.”

Our three rivers turn the puny San Joaquin into the state’s second-largest river before it joins the Sacramento River – which is four times larger – to create the Delta. Brown’s twin 40-foot-wide tunnels would siphon off much of the mighty Sacramento before it ever gets there.

Diverting the Sacramento upstream, insists the state, will “fix” a terribly damaged Delta. But as the Sacramento is pumped south, our water will be required to keep salt from ruining the Delta. Instead of growing food, nurturing communities and building families here, that water will be used by people in other places.

The state’s real priority – says our conspiracy theory – is to ensure 20 million Californians living elsewhere get the water they want.

No, no, no, said Marcus: “Fish need food, they need to be able to hide from predators; it’s about giving the native species a shot against invasive species. ... If fish could talk, what would they ask for? They’d ask for 100 percent.”

No, they wouldn’t.

Biologists at FishBio have published a peer-reviewed, 12-year study showing migrating fish actually prefer flows of around 700 cubic feet per second, not massive flows of 5,000 to 10,000 cfs preferred by government scientists.

If this was really about fish, we’d be destroying predators, creating more habitat and more floodplains – which we’re doing.

In the 1990s, only a few hundred salmon could be found on each river. But this winter thousands of salmon were counted – 15,000 on the Stanislaus, nearly 3,000 on the Merced and 3,500 on the Tuolumne. It could be better, and it will be.

The state should be celebrating with us – not demanding water-only solutions. So why aren’t they? Perhaps there’s a conspiracy to ignore success.

Now, about that “incompetency.”

Among the water board’s duties is ensuring we have safe drinking water. The board created a website dedicated to the “human right” to clean water. It’s excellent, showing most of our water systems are fine.

It shows that in the past, the water in the towns of Keyes, Hughson and Atwater had too much arsenic. The water in Riverdale Park in north Stanislaus had too much uranium, as did the city of Ceres. Turlock’s drinking water was out of compliance for nitrates. Along Interstate 5, the water in Santa Nella contained TTHM – or trihalomethanes.

All these communities have something in common: Their water comes from wells, as does that of most Valley communities. Groundwater.

That’s the same water the state – in demanding more river water for fish – recommends we all drink. Even cities that augment water supply with treated river water, such as Modesto and Manteca, will have less of it if twice as much water stays in the river to succor fish. Humans will be left with the stuff that too often contains nitrates, arsenic and tri-whatevers.

The state regulators demanding more flow work in the same building as those who document the problems with groundwater. Shouldn’t they check with their co-workers before insisting we rely more heavily on it? Increased groundwater use could concentrate contaminants, pulling more of them to larger wells.

Modesto already mixes groundwater with river water. As Vance Kennedy, a retired Ph.D. hydrologist, puts it, “dilution is the solution to pollution.” He’s also pointed out that, occasional deluges notwithstanding, we’re depleting groundwater resources far more rapidly than we refill them.

Perhaps this is why Sen. Dianne Feinstein this past week urged Marcus to extend the comment period – it closes March 17 – so a broader range of issues can be considered and discussed. These issues go far beyond salmon survival, which is also important.

Solving one problem while creating others might not be a conspiracy, but it is evidence of incompetence.