Mike Dunbar

Mike Dunbar: We must fight the water grab, not just talk about it

The Tuolumne River in March 2018.
The Tuolumne River in March 2018. aalfaro@modbee.com

This is a call to arms.

We’ve tried science. We’ve tried persuasion. We’ve tried to reason with the State Water Resources Control Board. For the last nine years, we’ve tried all these things and it was all worthless.

Friday, the board’s regulators released their plan to disrupt a century of California water law and demand twice as much water flow down the Tuolumne, Stanislaus and Merced rivers in a purported effort to save salmon.

This is a water grab, pure and simple. And we must fight it, not just talk about it.

The board ignored the pleas of more than 2,000 people who testified in hastily arranged meetings in December, 2016. The board ignored abundant evidence – scientific, peer-reviewed academic studies and the evidence of our own eyes – that disputed their views on salmon.

Instead, the state cherry-picked scenarios to make their case – blotting out the voices of government officials, economists, farmers and business people who know the state’s draconian actions will devastate us. To send more water to the bass-infested San Joaquin Delta (where 97 percent of all salmon juveniles are eaten), the state is willing to crucify one of the state’s poorest regions, killing jobs, hurting schools, shuttering businesses and sending the crops raised on thousands of small family farms south with the water.

But this has been the state’s plan all along.

The state’s water grab is without precedent and has implications for all of California’s water rights holders. Turlock and Modesto are the state’s oldest irrigation districts with the state’s most ironclad rights. Like Oakdale, Merced and South San Joaquin, those rights are older than the state’s first water law.

Those districts and their farmers were applauded as they gambled their farms and livelihoods on building dams, canals and power systems.

What does the state offer as rationale for trying to take all that away? Flawed statistics, half-baked rhetoric and misplaced sympathies.

They pointed to 2014 when only 8,000 salmon spawned on the Tuolumne, Stanislaus and Merced rivers. Looking only at this year, they predicted the “total collapse” of the San Joaquin River system’s fisheries.

That ignored 2017 when 15,000 salmon returned to the Stanislaus alone. That ignored peer-reviewed science that showed it is often the state’s own bungling of water resources that contribute to both wasted water and dead fish.

Calling the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta “an ecosystem in crisis,” the state completely ignored the companion plan to dig a tunnel 250 feet beneath the Delta so that most of the Sacramento River can be sucked south.

The state didn’t mention that the Sacramento River provides 80 percent of the water flowing into the Delta. It didn’t mention that even in our peak years, the Sacramento produces 10, even 15 times more fish than The San Joaquin and its tributaries.

Instead, we heard about the sad, sad salmon fishermen. So much hand-wringing over a couple of hundred fishing boats, you’d think it was one of California’s most vital industries. It’s not.

The entire commercial salmon catch for California has never amounted to more than $25 million, falling far behind crab in value to fishermen. Meanwhile, they’re catching a fish that grows in staggering abundance in Oregon, Washington, Canada and Alaska. The state’s most often quoted scientists say that as the planet warms, salmon can’t survive in California.

The irrigation districts will fight this water grab in court. The rest of us must help wage a battle in the hearts, minds and stomachs of those who eat the food we grow.

Do they know where their food comes from? Do they know they’re being lied to?

The state hatched this plan a decade ago when it became clear California would lose a significant portion of the Colorado River.

So it devised this plan and tried to justify it with studies, hearings and revisions. The plan announced Friday basically remains as it was – 40 percent of the water flowing to the ocean in hopes of saving salmon ... and sending more water south.

Tripling the water extracted from our rivers won’t save salmon, but it will devastate families. It will throw mothers and fathers out of jobs. It will diminish the value of our ag land dramatically, cutting what we collect in taxes to fund school districts, police officers and local governments. If we aren’t willing to hold that picture up to the rest of California, we will never win this fight.

This declaration of economic war is not just about water. It’s a war over our homes, our jobs and our children.

Over the past 130 years, we’ve built our economy on water – often with the state’s enthusiastic assistance and applause. Now?

“They speak about the people of the San Joaquin Valley as if we are parasites on the land and demand we apologize for our very existence,” said an angry Assemblyman Adam Gray on Friday after the announcement was made.

We need to tell our stories, provide a different point of view; prove that we know better how to manage our resources – including the salmon.

The comment period closes July 27. The board will begin the process of rubber-stamping its plan in August. That’s how long we’ve got to change some minds.

The Bee will help. In later editorials, we’ll explain how.