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Commentary: California can’t save fish by diverting more water from rivers

Commentary: California can’t save fish by diverting more water from rivers

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Biologist Kari Burr hold a smolt, the juvenile form of a Chinook salmon in Vallejo, Calif., Thursday, June 4, 2009.

Recent decades have brought the slow collapse of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and its salmon runs. A half dozen species face extinction. Lacking natural flushing, the Delta now suffers outbreaks of toxic algae. The salmon fishing industry suffered a shutdown in 2008 and 2009, which cost thousands of jobs.

Science points to a clear cause: inadequate flows caused by excessive diversions. In some years, 90 percent of the Tuolumne River is diverted, leaving only 10 percent for salmon and the Bay-Delta. Every Central Valley salmon river also suffers from over diversion in many years.

Recent proposals from water users fall far short of what is needed by salmon and required by the law.

We need a new approach, alright, but the State Water Contractors’ solution as described by Jennifer Pierre offers potentially even less water for salmon and inadequate habitat restoration.

Current water sharing proposals fail to achieve the balance needed to restore our salmon runs. Meanwhile, additional massive increases in Delta diversions are planned by the Trump administration under these agreements, which would make conditions for salmon even worse. This is a formula for extinctions and the end of salmon fishing in California.

There is no support for this proposal among fishermen or conservationists.

Fortunately, the State Water Board has been working since 2009 to rebalance Central Valley diversions and river flows to bring them into compliance with the law and what salmon need. The Board’s first step, to reduce water diversions on the San Joaquin River, was modest. Nonetheless, most San Joaquin River water districts dug in and opposed, even though they’ve had a decade to develop an alternative plan of their own.

The State Water Board should be praised for its work, and should finalize comprehensive flows standards, and implement them as soon as possible.

We agree with Jennifer Pierre that restored floodplain habitat is essential to a healthy ecosystem and salmon runs. This is an area with the potential for fruitful collaboration.

But when it comes to water, here’s a suggestion: Don’t believe big tobacco about cancer. Don’t believe big oil about climate change. And don’t believe the big water users about flows needed to restore salmon and the Bay-Delta.

Editor’s note: This is a response to the CALmatters commentary “Finally, a new path toward managing water, rivers and the Delta,” published in the Napa Valley Register on April 8.

John McManus is president of the Golden Gate Salmon Association. He wrote this commentary for CALmatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters.

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