Water war boils down to farmers vs. fishermen

Caltrans is using freeway signs across the state to spread the word about the need to conserve water.
(Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times)

SACRAMENTO—Don’t blame the little fish. And don’t call it the Central Valley.

Both comments, repeated incessantly, were irritants during President Obama’s visit to parched California farm country last week.

The president was there—in the San Joaquin Valley—to cuddle with water hogs.

The hogs are large growers who use lots of water, have just about run out and are angry because they’re being denied other people’s. And they keep complaining that the government is favoring a little “bait fish” over farmers.


Yes, regulators have been holding back some delta water in recent years to save the smelt, a finger-sized fish that is used not as bait but as a canary.

That is, the smelt is viewed by biologists as a canary in a coal mine, an indicator of ill health for the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, a source of drinking water for 24 million people and irrigation for 3 million acres.

So goes the smelt, so goes the delta, the largest estuary on the West Coast of America, north or south. The smelt’s decline signals, among other things, increased pollution, salinity and devastation caused by giant fish-chomping pumps.

The hogs and water buffaloes—so named because, like the beast, they reputedly can smell water from hundreds of miles away—like to demonize the smelt because it’s an unimpressive, dumb-sounding fish. You don’t hear them talking much, however, about king salmon, also called Chinook. Everyone admires salmon.

Chuck Bonham, director of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, calls salmon one of the “cornerstones of what makes California great—whether you like them on your dinner plate, fish for them on the waterways or make a living off them in a north coastal community. They’re iconic.”

But California has been seriously screwing with salmon over the decades as it captured water to irrigate cotton, pistachios, pasture and all manner of crops grown basically in a desert.


Salmon runs have declined steeply from their historic levels because of dams that blocked access to ancestral spawning streams and, more recently, due to polluted runoff into rivers from fertilized fields and urban waste. And there are those killer delta pumps that not only eat fish but reverse San Joaquin River flows, fatally confusing young salmon.

So water deliveries have been restricted not just for smelt, but also to protect salmon and the coastal fishing industry. It’s not about farmers vs. fish. It’s about farmers vs. fishermen. Or almonds vs. salmon.

It’s an ongoing battle. In 1980, there were 5,700 licensed salmon fishing vessels on the California coast, says Zeke Grader, director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Assns. Today, he reports, there are only around 1,000, and only half are active.

Roughly 90% of California’s salmon are products of the delta and its tributaries, Grader says. So are 50% of Oregon’s salmon. The biggest producer, by far, is the Sacramento River system.

But the fish need large flows of fresh water to push them out to sea, where they grow for three or four years before returning though the Golden Gate to spawn in the river systems.

But to listen to the hogs, that’s fresh water wasted out to sea. Never mind that it’s necessary for the preservation of fish—including sturgeon and striped bass—and to irrigate a valuable delta agriculture economy (pears, asparagus, corn, tomatoes, berries).

“We’re watching the biological collapse of a great estuary,” says Bill Jennings, director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance.

“Fish that nature nurtured over a millennium are being destroyed. The delta is in a meltdown because the estuary has been deprived of half its historical flow.”

That brings me to my second point: The delta is the Central Valley, too. The Central Valley stretches 450 miles from Redding to Bakersfield, and includes two valleys: the Sacramento and the San Joaquin. The delta drains the two main rivers—the Sacramento and San Joaquin (what remains of it)—and their many tributaries.

The drought aside, most of the Central Valley is in relatively good shape—as is Southern California, which has conserved, recycled and invested for the future.

The Central Valley is in a water civil war, south vs. north. It’s the San Joaquin Valley that is desperate and needs hand-holding by the president as it tries to siphon off more delta water.

San Joaquin farmers will rightly point out that they’ve contracted for government water that they’re not receiving. And it’s unfair. But the dirty secret is Californians have legal rights to more than five times the water that exists in average years, even when nature is producing precipitation normally.

Gov. Earl Warren warned about this more than 60 years ago, and nobody did anything.

“The state has over-promised and over-allocated,” Jennings says.

A little history here: Gov. Pat Brown, when he built the State Water Project, figured on tapping into the Eel River on the north coast. That would have added significantly more water. But Gov. Ronald Reagan quashed that idea for environmental reasons. Yes, Mr. Conservative.

Wildlife director Bonham’s take on the farmers vs. fishermen fight is this: “When people start screaming at each other, it takes all our energy away. And we need all the brainpower we can muster to solve this.”

Gov. Jerry Brown probably had the smartest observation last week: “When God doesn’t provide the water, it’s not here.”

It’s not the tiny fish’s fault.