PD Editorial: State orders will harm salmon fisheries
You might think a wet winter would benefit Northern California’s iconic salmon and the communities that rely on them.
Alas, you would be mistaken.
During recent droughts, low river flows and warm water have proved to be a lethal combination for salmon and other fish in the Sacramento River and its tributaries. State waivers of water quality regulations in six of the past 10 years didn’t help beleaguered fisheries.
January’s drenching rains dramatically improved river conditions across the state, raising hopes for winter run chinook salmon.
But the storms also generated a cascade of complaints about water being “wasted.” In other words, storm runoff flowed through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and into the Pacific Ocean.
Gov. Gavin Newsom responded by suspending environmental regulations so more water is available this summer for Central Valley agriculture, a decision affirmed last week by the state Water Resources Control Board.
The result will be less water in the Sacramento River and the Delta for the rest of the winter — and more harm to fisheries.
Ripple effects will be felt in Bodega Bay, Point Arena, Fort Bragg, Eureka and other North Coast towns where commercial and sport fishing for jobs are economic mainstays.
It is true that California must increase storage of stormwater as a safeguard against droughts and increasingly unpredictable weather patterns.
But water flowing through the Delta is never wasted.
The Delta, the largest estuary on the West Coast, provides habitat for hundreds of plant and animal species. Delta farms produce more than $650 million worth of grapes, tomatoes, corn and other crops annually. The Delta also is a source of drinking water for some Bay Area communities.
Maintaining flows at the levels required by law help ocean-bound juvenile salmon get past the powerful pumps that feed aqueducts serving Central Valley growers and Southern California cities. When the flow drops, more fish get caught in the pumps and killed. Salmon returning from the ocean also need adequate flows to reach their native spawning grounds.
Uncaptured storm runoff also helps clean pollutants out of rivers and bays and deposits sand on ocean beaches, and freshwater flows protect against saltwater intrusion from San Francisco Bay.
A series of atmospheric rivers in January produced the wettest three weeks on record in California. Despite complaints about waste, not all that water flowed out to sea. Some soaked into the ground, recharging depleted aquifers. As of Tuesday, the Sierra snowpack was 174% of normal. Reservoirs that fell to critically low levels last year are now approaching, and even exceeding, historical averages for late February. As snow melts, reservoirs should rise even higher.
Given long-term uncertainties about drought and climate change, one wet year won’t relieve the need for water conservation. That’s going to be a way of life, for city residents and farmers.
As columnist George Skelton details in Sunday’s Forum section, conservation needs will include reducing the Central Valley acreage dedicated to thirsty crops like almonds and pistachios that can’t be fallowed in dry years.
After years of steep cuts, the state is restoring deliveries of irrigation water this year. Newsom’s order, and the subsequent state water board decision, will result in even larger deliveries. But the decision only delays the day of reckoning — and it does so at the expense of a struggling fishing industry that also deserves the governor’s support.
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