Fitzgerald: How to kill fish and hurt people
Saving the Delta requires sacrifice by all, not just residents of this region. I hope someone drilled that idea into the State Water Resources Control Board.
The board, whose Sisyphean job is to ensure California's water is used fairly, brought its road show to Stockton last Friday for a public hearing on its dubious Water Quality Control Plan.
To save dying fisheries, and to make the Delta healthier, the board proposes to bump up flows on three rivers that feed the San Joaquin River: the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced.
Which sounds good, right? Fish need water, right?
Flows on the three rivers would be increased to 30 to 50 percent of "unimpeded natural runoff" (the amount of water which would run down them if they weren't dammed) from February to June each year.
That water would revive the Delta, maybe.
So now you're going to ask, gee, if the state proposes to increase flows to 30 to 50 percent, just what kind of trickle is flowing down these rivers? Unfortunately, the answers are disputed, like everything else about water in this state. The board says 21 percent (Tuolumne); 26 percent (Merced); and 40 percent (Stanislaus).
They'd start with 40 percent on all three.
There appears to be two big problems with the state proposal. First, 40 percent isn't enough to restore fisheries, said Barbara Barrigan-Parilla of Restore the Delta.
"Forty percent unimpeded flow, the flow won't reach Chipps Island," the gateway to Suisun Bay and the ocean, Barrigan-Parilla said. "If they don't reach Chipps Island, fish are not saved and restored."
The state board itself scientifically established the Delta needs 60 percent unimpeded natural runoff to fully restore fisheries. Other Delta experts say 50 percent might suffice for a partial, tolerable revival.
But not 40. "At 40 percent you still hit extinctions," Barrigan-Parilla said. "It just takes you longer."
So the proposal is doomed from that perspective. Its other flaw is that it proposes to secure the water from the economic underdogs of the Northern San Joaquin Valley.
Which is why this region's leaders lined up around the block to denounce the plan as devastating.
There'd be less surface water, they beefed. More groundwater pumping. There'd be less farming - our primary industry - therefore job loss, therefore more crime. Delta recreation would take a hit.
The state estimates the regional damage at $64 million a year, and proposes to do nothing to soften the blow. Local leaders say the cost may be much, much higher.
There's a second issue with salt. The board's proposal would allow more of it in the Delta at certain times. Salt is the enemy of crops. Salt contaminates groundwater. Salt weakens freshwater fish.
And yes, there's something hypocritical about these objections. For years Delta folks have scolded exporters by saying science, not politics, should determine how much water the Delta needs to thrive. When our ox stands to get gored, it's a different story.
But then, our ox is so much punier than theirs. If the Valley were the 51st state, it'd be America's poorest, below Mississippi. Water policy that ignores this ignores environmental justice.
Also, isn't it weird that the state proposes to take water from this region's water districts, though most have the most senior water rights? Oakdale Irrigation's rights date to 1863, the year Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.
But the state does not propose to go upriver and take water from exporters with junior rights, say, the Friant Water Authority outside Fresno.
The reason defines the term "pretzel logic:" Because Friant Dam (illegally) extirpated the salmon run, there's no fish down there, so Friant doesn't have to participate in a fish restoration program. Really?
I'm not even going to dovetail the state board's proposal with the recent federal water bill (which hands the Delta to Big Ag) or the governor's Delta tunnels plan (ditto).
Suffice to say if the fish die, Uncle Sam and the state lose interest in protecting the Delta. Saltwater intrudes. Farming is poisoned. The economy tanks. Effective policy is a must.
"I do believe ultimately if we're to have rivers and the Bay-Delta estuary there's going to have to be shared sacrifice from the top to the bottom of the watershed and people who export water from the Delta," Barrigan-Parilla said.
Give the Delta the water that science says it needs; everyone from here to San Diego shares the pain of water cuts. That is preferable to the board's plan, which hurts this region's distressed economy but fails to save the fish.