Governor Newsom’s vision has room for both fish and farming

Gov. Gavin Newsom enters the Assembly Chambers to deliver his first state of the state address to a joint session of the legislature.
Gov. Gavin Newsom enters the Assembly Chambers to deliver his first state of the state address to a joint session of the legislature. AP

Anyone inclined to high-five the dismissal of chairwoman Felicia Marcus from the State Water Resources Control Board should put their hands to better use. Like using them to roll up their sleeves so we can get to work fixing our rivers and making them more hospitable to salmon.

Marcus’ replacement was announced Tuesday in Gov. Gavin Newsom’s first State of the State speech. He elevated Joaquin Esquivel to the chair.

He also laid out an incredibly ambitious — and exciting — plan to make California a better place to live. Newsom will downsize the California WaterFix from two tunnels to one, focus the state’s high-speed rail project on the Central Valley, elevate dealing with homelessness to a moral imperative, and try to make certain everyone in our state can afford a place to live and has clean water to drink.

Reflecting that priority, Newsom appointed Laurel Firestone, a clean-water activist from Tulare County, to fill the seat being vacated by Marcus.

Dismissing Marcus was necessary after she led the board to a 4-1 vote implementing Phase I of the Bay-Delta Plan. Phase I focused on the San Joaquin River — and its biggest tributaries, the Tuolumne, Merced and Stanislaus rivers — which provides about 20 percent of the Delta’s flows. The other 80 percent come from the Sacramento.

Phase I would double flows dedicated for fish, requiring the fallowing thousands of acres in Merced, Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties, costing of tens of millions of dollars each year.

In its December vote, the board ignored the mandatory requirement that its decisions be based on the “best available science,” relying instead on 10-, 20- or 30-year-old studies. More up-to-date studies – conducted on our region’s rivers – were ignored, as were significant improvements in salmon survival.

The vote also ignored a plea from Newsom and former Gov. Jerry Brown to allow our region’s water districts and the state to reach “voluntary” settlements.

The state had reached such a deal on the Tuolumne, promising creation of flood plains, better spawning beds and strategically increased flows. Negotiations with Merced Irrigation District, which controls far less water, were more difficult but an agreement is clearly possible.

Voting to implement Phase I ended those negotiations, but gave birth to a litter of lawsuits involving Merced, Modesto, Turlock, Oakdale and South San Joaquin irrigation districts. The California Farm Bureau, the City and County of San Francisco and others also sued. So did environmental groups.

Replacing Marcus will create a better environment for resumed talks. We all share the goal of saving salmon. Perhaps now the state will recognize that we have some good ideas for doing just that, and that we’re willing to make the necessary sacrifices.

The real key to creating more salmon won’t be found in our rivers, but in the Delta — an ecosystem degraded by generations of diking and dredging and infested by predatory bass. Some years, 100 percent of juvenile salmon exiting the Merced River die in the Delta.

Gavin Newsom has a vision for our state that is at once dramatic and pragmatic. We like it. But nothing about his vision is more important than solving our state’s water problems.

“Let me be direct,” said Newsom, taking on the state’s “massive” water challenges. “The status quo is not an option.”

Marcus represented that status quo. But anyone who sees her dismissal as some sort of victory is wrong. What the governor has given us is an opportunity to go back to work; to find a way to equitably restore and share our rivers.

Without salmon, our rivers are ruined. Without farming, our lives are ruined. It’s up to us to figure out how best to save both.