Estuary News

June 2021

Perspective:

One reporter’s view on fish, farms, and the fight over the Delta’s water.

As drought parches California, obliterates its snowpack, and reduces rivers to trickles, a familiar feud over water has resurfaced. Farmers want more of it to irrigate their crops, while fishermen and environmentalists want more left in rivers to protect the state’s Chinook salmon.

Mainstream news outlets often portray the struggle as one between two groups ravaged by environmental whims and climate change. However, this interpretation weaves a false equivalence through the narrative. Whereas the state’s Chinook and coho salmon runs have withered to about a tenth of their historic magnitude, California’s agriculture industry has seen steady and soaring growth since its inception 150 years ago. Today, California’s farms occupy millions of acres, use 80 percent of our stored water supply, and produce about $50 billion in products each year, the majority of which is consumed out of state. Even in dry years, most of California’s farm acreage receives plenty of water, and total farm revenue does not substantially decline.

The deterioration of the Central Valley’s aquatic ecosystems as the agriculture sector thrives represents the failure of a particular tenet of state policy known as the coequal goals. The Delta Stewardship Council is tasked with carrying out this objective, which mandates providing a reliable water supply for human users and protecting, restoring, and enhancing the state’s natural resources and wildlife. “The coequal goals,” the Council’s website states, “shall be achieved in a manner that protects and enhances the unique cultural, recreational, natural resource, and agricultural values of the Delta as an evolving place.” 

John McManus, president of the Golden State Salmon Association, a fishery advocacy group that lobbies for habitat restoration projects and improved flow conditions for salmon, feels the coequal goals initiative has not significantly influenced policy. “It’s pretty clear that the coequal goals are only equal on paper,” he said in an interview. “In the real world, the big agricultural operations have always gotten more of the state’s water than any other community or group.”

Drought tends to reveal this inequality. While most irrigated farm acreage receives water even during dry years, rivers tend to shrink away when supplies dwindle, often causing disastrous die-offs in fish populations. This year, disease is ravaging Chinook in the Klamath, where trickling flows have warmed to lethal temperatures. A similar crisis is expected in the Sacramento this summer as spawning salmon lay and fertilize their eggs in what environmental advocates fear will be deathly warm outflow from Lake Shasta.

Susan Tatayon, chair of the Delta Stewardship Council, told Estuary News that agencies “are working toward achieving the coequal goals” and that measuring success is complicated. A set of “performance measures,” described at the Council’s website, was introduced several years ago. They address water quality, people and property, river flows, and water exports, among other variables. 

“Achieving these coequal goals will be going on for generations,” Tatayon said, adding that finding a sustainable balance in water use “is urgent” as species like Delta smelt and several runs of Chinook salmon decline. She believes coequality between water uses will arrive through “ecosystem-based management,” which looks at entire ecosystems rather than taking a species-by-species regulatory approach.   

Art by Sophia Zaleski.

This spring, Governor Newsom declared the drought a formal emergency. This declaration could ease the way toward waivers on environmental protections that would allow water to be more easily funneled out of the Delta. That’s what happened during the last drought, leading to prematurely drained reservoirs and lethal spawning conditions downstream of Shasta Dam, where sun-warmed outflow killed nearly every Chinook salmon egg laid in the summers of 2014 and 2015. 

Farmers also feel the burn of drought. In the Sacramento Valley, rice plantings have been scaled back by 20 percent of average acreage — what headlines have featured as an agricultural disaster. However, it’s a relatively small cut for growers, and as soon as plentiful rainfall returns, those fallowed acres will be farmed again.

In the western San Joaquin Valley, some farmers — especially those with junior contracts for water in years of surplus — are plowing over producing trees for lack of delivered water. But such growers are the minority, points out Jon Rosenfield, a senior scientist with the organization San Francisco Baykeeper. “These junior contractors do not represent all or even most California farmers, or even all or most Central Valley farmers,” he said.

Most of the state’s orchards will receive the water they need this year to produce profitable crops. “When surface allocations are low, during droughts, farmers often turn to groundwater,” said Peter Gleick, a professor emeritus with the Pacific Institute, an Oakland research thinktank. “That’s one reason why farm income rarely drops very much during droughts.”

In fact, the last major dry spell, though publicized as devastating to farmers, cut a relatively small $4 billion in sales from the state’s agriculture industry from 2014 through 2016, according to recent reporting by CalMatters.

This year, in spite of cries for more water in the state’s farmlands, California farmers are poised to harvest 3.2 billion pounds of almonds — yet another in a long string of record crops for the booming industry.

To Rosenfield, the plight of the state’s salmon fishing industry illustrates the lopsided version of coequality for which society has settled. “In 2008 and 2009 after the salmon runs collapsed, fishermen were shut down completely, and this year they’ve lost half their season, and based on what’s happening now, it’s possible they’ll get shut down again in three years,” he said. “But if a farmer gets cut by 30 percent, people react emotionally, because God forbid a crop should be fallowed.”

The notion of coequality in California’s water use is an illusion created by drastically shifted ecological baselines. As a society, we have forgotten what it means for a river to be a healthy and productive system. We live in a recalibrated paradigm where anything less than economic growth is a crisis, and endangered listings and depleted stocks are the status quo for native fish species. Allocating even minimal flows of water to keep these creatures from disappearing is controversial when it cuts into farm production.

California leaders talk about restoring rivers and wetlands, but these ecosystems, once destroyed, are rarely fully revived. Recently, a San Joaquin River restoration effort was celebrated when it coaxed a few salmon back to a watershed that once hosted hundreds of thousands. In her 2015 book The Narrow Edge, naturalist Deborah Cramer wrote, “We so easily settle for the diminished world around us …. Unaware of what we have lost, we can’t imagine what we might restore.”

This cultural amnesia continues, drawing us down the slippery slope of progress. Last month, a political figure in the San Joaquin Valley suggested declaring the Delta smelt extinct to ease water-pumping restrictions intended to protect the fish, which Republicans have often pointed out is small and economically worthless. Indeed, California would have a real shot at achieving its coequal goals if some water users just disappeared.

Top photo: Alastair Bland after a dive at the mouth of the Russian River.

Delta Stewardship Council (ca.gov)

About the author

A native to San Francisco, Alastair Bland is a freelance journalist who writes about water policy in California, rivers and salmon, marine conservation and climate change. His work has appeared at NPR.org, Smithsonian.com, Yale Environment 360 and News Deeply, among many other outlets. When he isn't writing, Alastair is likely riding his bicycle uphill as fast as he can.

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