Close to Home: Salmon need their fair share of water

Salmon-fishing communities, families and businesses have been struggling with low and wavering salmon populations in recent years.

In 2008 and 2009, salmon runs were so depleted that the ocean salmon fishing in California was shut down, causing economic hardship and dislocation to commercial and recreational fishing businesses, families and communities up and down the coast. Then the drought hit which caused even more damage to salmon and fishermen. With California's vastly oversubscribed water allocation system, a growing population and ever more landscape being converted to irrigated agriculture, California salmon now basically experience permanent drought, except in very wet years.

The Golden Gate Salmon Association works to correct this damage, which extends beyond salmon to other native species and polluted water in the delta and San Francisco Bay.

In spite of state law requiring that streams below dams be maintained at levels that sustain native fish in good condition, and a law requiring California to rebuild salmon runs to an annual million fish per year, the state keeps allowing more and more water to be diverted. Today California's water is diverted at more than five times the natural flow, and opportunities to reallocate water to salmon are rare.

We have such an opportunity right now, but it won't happen without a major push. The State Water Resources Control Board has scheduled public hearings on a proposal calling for reducing diversions in the Merced, Tuolumne and Stanislaus rivers so more water will be left for salmon. These are the three main tributaries of the San Joaquin River. All three have small salmon runs that are on life support. All three are heavily diverted with up to 90 percent of flow taken from some of these rivers in some years, and some months seeing as little as only 5 percent of the river. No wonder our fish and wildlife are dying. The water board needs to approve and strengthen this proposal to guarantee that water is untouched as it flows through the Delta and all the way to the Golden Gate if we're going to make a difference for salmon, the delta and the bay. The trickle that makes it to the delta today isn't enough to ward off massive outbreaks of toxic blue green algae and invasive water weeds that are blocking shipping and clogging water intakes. The federal Environmental Protection Agency knows there's a Flint, Michigan-like situation shaping up here in California caused by removal of too much fresh water from the delta and is reportedly watching California.

The state also needs to increase flows from the Sacramento River through the delta to ensure that everyone contributes their fair share to restoring salmon, the delta and bay.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife says 60 percent of the three tributary rivers would need to flow freely from February to June to rebuild salmon runs. However, the proposal in front of the state water board is to start with leaving only 40 percent of the rivers instream, not the needed 60 percent.

Studies show that reducing the diversions to leave 60 percent in the spring for salmon would still leave more than 95 percent of current agriculture untouched.

Water used by San Francisco and the Peninsula comes from the Tuolumne River. The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission says it can't afford cuts either. But the Bay Area has great potential to generate new water supplies through water recycling and storm water capture and to reduce water used on lawns and ornamental landscapes.

A decision to reduce diversions will leave lots of time for everyone to make any adjustments needed. To the extent that correcting this historic over-allocation causes potential disruption to a small section of the San Joaquin Valley or elsewhere, let's hear that with an open mind.

Tens of thousands of jobs are tied to salmon in California, and many more would economically benefit from a restored Central Valley, Delta and San Francisco Bay. It's not only about jobs. It's also about protecting the best of our natural environment that has made California so special.

John McManus is executive director of the Golden Gate Salmon Association.The state will take public comments at three hearings on the topic beginning with one on Nov. 29 at 9 a.m. at the CalEPA Headquarters, at 1001 I St. in Sacramento.

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