Time to make our stand, fight for our rivers

The confluence of the Merced River, left, and San Joaquin River, right, Wednesday afternoon, June 13, 2018 near Stevinson.
The confluence of the Merced River, left, and San Joaquin River, right, Wednesday afternoon, June 13, 2018 near Stevinson. ezamora@fresnobee.com

This is no time to lose heart or traction.

Last week, the State Water Resources Control Board did what it has been wanting to do for a decade, officially proffering a plan to take twice as much water out of our region’s rivers and send it somewhere else. That’s not the board’s official reasoning, of course, but it’s the real goal.

The board insists this is an effort to save “an ecosystem in crisis,” the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. The Delta crisis is real, but not because of lack of water. More than 95 percent of its channels and sloughs are artificially “armored” with rip-rap, providing no place for salmon (or Delta smelt) to hide from non-native predators.

Board chair Felicia Marcus explains the state is also trying to save the beleagured salmon – a specie so abundant that more than 220 million of them (a billion pounds) were caught commercially in America last year.

But only a few thousand came from here, and that’s why the board wants to double – or even triple – how much water flows out of the Merced, Tuolumne and Stanislaus rivers into the bass-infested Delta. Thousands of hatchery salmon exit our rivers each year, but only 3 in 100 make it to the ocean. The rest are eaten by bass.

To make its case for those living outside our region, the state cited 2014 when only 8,000 salmon exited our rivers. Using this figure, they predicted the “total collapse” of the San Joaquin River system’s fisheries.

So how does the state explain 2017, when after five years of drought 15,000 salmon came to the Stanislaus River? Or the 5,000 salmon that spawned on the Merced River in 2015?

We should have more salmon on our rivers. We should have vibrant, lively rivers with flood plains, tree cover and all sorts of native species. But even that won’t save salmon. As Seirra snow turns into rain, our rivers are warming. Salmon can’t survive in water above 75 degrees. Will the water board also end global warming?

The state ignores peer-reviewed science that show salmon prefer milder flows with water oxygenated by rainfall. It ignores its own bungling of water resources that contributes to both wasted water and dead fish. And it doesn’t want to hear about the economic upheaval its plan will create.

Something else the state fails to mention – its determination to siphon most of the Sacramento River south, under the Delta. The Sacramento provides 80 percent of the Delta’s water. Without it, the state will need virtually all of our water to hold back salty ocean tides.

Southern California lost a significant portion of the Colorado River this year, so Metropolitan Water District came to the Delta to make up the difference. It bought five Delta islands in the path of the tunnels and Tuesday approved $10 billion to build them.

“They speak about the people of the San Joaquin Valley as if we are parasites on the land and demand we apologize for our very existence,” said an angry Assemblyman Adam Gray. We’d rather fight than apologize.

The river plan will be rubberstamped by the four of the water board’s five members in August. You can comment until July 27, but only on changes from previous plans.

Key to halting a bad plan is to have a better one – a plan addressing the degradation of our rivers and trying to realistically help salmon. The problem is that without a companion plan to fix the Delta, our plans won’t work – no matter how much water the state steals.

As the irrigation districts prepare to fight in court, the rest of us must help wage a battle in the hearts, minds and stomachs of our neighbors to the west. Do they know where their food comes from? Do they know they’re being lied to?

If they understand, perhaps they can help the water board – or a new governor – understand, too.