comments_image Comments

California Water Wars: Not a Conflict Between Fish and People

Unfortunately, this characterization of the battle to save the Delta as one of "people versus fish" couldn't be further from the truth.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the California Department of Water Resources and corporate agribusiness have continually tried to frame the battle over restoring the California Delta and Central Valley rivers as one of "fish versus people."

This false dichotomy was exemplified by an article published in the Sacramento Bee, " Delta Cutbacks Put Valley Farm Town on Edge," by Susan Ferris on Monday, March 2.

The reporter interviewed people in the agricultural industry in Mendota on the San Joaquin Valley's west side, discussing their fears over unemployment due to cuts in irrigation water deliveries from the Delta that are being blamed on court-ordered reductions in water exports to save salmon and Delta smelt. These fears are real, due to poor planning by the state and federal governments, which drained Shasta, Oroville and Folsom reservoirs to record low levels over the past two below-normal water years rather than conserving water as they should have.

"They're worrying about the fish but not about the humans' life," said Jose Ruiz, 42, a foreman at a vegetable firm in Mendota, as quoted by Ferris.

Unfortunately, this characterization of the battle to save the Delta as one of "people versus fish" couldn't be further from the truth. Because of massive exports of water to the Westlands Water District and Kern County and the governor's plan to build a peripheral canal to divert even more water, thousands of jobs are threatened as they never have been before!

These include thousands of jobs in the recreational and commercial fishing industries, the tourist industries of coastal and Sacramento Valley communities, and on Delta and Sacramento Valley farms.

This is not an issue of "fish versus people versus fish," nor "fish versus jobs." The battle to save the Delta, the largest estuary on the West Coast of the Americas, really comes down to a conflict between a future based on sustainable fishing, farming and recreation or a future based on corporate agribusiness irrigating toxic, drainage-impaired land that should never have been farmed at the expense of Delta and Sacramento Valley farms and healthy fisheries.

Recreational and commercial fishing in California are largely dependent upon the health of the California Delta, since the Central Valley Chinook salmon run, the driver of West Coast salmon fisheries, migrates through the estuary both as juveniles going out to the ocean and as adults coming back to the rivers to spawn. The Bay-Delta estuary also supports an array of species, including native species such as California halibut, herring, Dungeness crab, delta smelt, longfin smelt, Sacramento splittail, white sturgeon, green sturgeon and starry flounder, as well as introduced fish, including striped bass, black bass and white catfish.

Another Year of Salmon Fishing Closures Looms

The recent biological opinion by the National Marine Fisheries Service stated that Delta pumping and Central Valley dam operations pose "jeopardy" to the continued existence of Central Valley salmon, green sturgeon and the southern resident population of killer whales.

The closure of salmon fishing in ocean waters off California and Oregon in 2009 was economically devastating to coastal communities. The shutdown of recreational salmon fishing on Central Valley rivers, with the exception of a two-month season on a short stretch of the Sacramento, was equally devastating to Sacramento Valley communities.

The states of Washington, Oregon and California estimated damages to the fishing industry totaled $290 million last year because of the ocean and river salmon closures. This prompted the governors of California, Oregon and Washington to request a federal disaster declaration that then-Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez issued in May. Congress allocated $170 million in disaster relief to fishermen and fishing-related businesses so that they could make boat payments, insurance payments and mortgage payments and keep food on the table.

See more stories tagged with: