Opinion Columns & Blogs

Scientists know state’s plan is a lie, but water board doesn’t care

A pair of salmon spawn in the gravel beds of the Tuolumne River near LaGrange.
A pair of salmon spawn in the gravel beds of the Tuolumne River near LaGrange. The Modesto Bee

There’s no doubt members of the State Water Resources Control Board don’t want to hear another word about their water grab from farmers, elected leaders, economists, irrigation districts or especially newspaper columnists.

But how about some of the state’s most respected scientists? How about the “Delta Watermaster”? How about people who have been shoulder-deep studying our rivers for decades?

In three, maybe six weeks the water board will issue its demand that 40 to 50 percent of the water flowing down the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers be allowed to flow past our farms and cities and into the Delta – where much of it will be siphoned south.

The board will use any number of rationales, all of them bunk.

“I always have had a little bit of skepticism behind the so-called ‘natural-flow’ doctrine for such an impaired, altered system,” said Jay Lund, a professor of watershed sciences at UC Davis during a symposium late last year later transcribed on the water blog Maven. He said it represents “sort of a scientific laziness related to the ‘fish-gotta-swim’ theory of environmental flows, like the more water you give them, the more of them there are going to be to swim.”

That statement shreds the rationale for “flow regimes.” Lund wasn’t alone.

Jose Setka of East Bay Municipal Utilities District, said: “(The rivers and Delta are) a very altered system, so you may not get the benefit you’re looking for simply by going for a straight unimpaired flow standard.”

From Delta Watermaster Michael George: “Frankly, I think we have to get away from this notion of trying to do the math based on this much water for this many fish. That just doesn’t work.

“I have authority in the Delta. … I know that if you deliver fish and water at that point, you’re introducing them to the killing fields and the difficulty of getting them (through the Delta alive) … is daunting; there is an argument that doing all that won’t make a significant enough difference unless you deal with all the other problems.”

Those “other problems” are all in the Delta – 1,000 square miles of farmland protected by ancient dikes, criss-crossed by shipping channels. That’s where the Delta smelt have all but disappeared; where non-native bass feast on juvenile salmon and trout. That’s where 95 percent of the rivers, sloughs and channels are armored by millions of tons of gravel.

In its “Substitute Environmental Document,” the water board prefers to ignore the evidence.

Last year, 15,000 salmon swam up the Stanislaus to spawn in rock nests created by the Oakdale and South San Joaquin irrigation districts. Hold your applause.

“What we saw in the Stanislaus was 15,000 hatchery fish come to the Stan that weren’t born in the Stanislaus,” said Doug Demko, president of FishBio and the man who has been studying our rivers the longest.

They make these baby fish in the hatcheries, then they truck them past the Delta to the Bay so they won’t be eaten by predators,” said Demko. “They spend a couple of years in the ocean … and then they don’t remember where they were born.”

Demko, who also spoke at the symposium, proved more water doesn’t equal more fish using 12 years of data in a peer-reviewed study published in a prestigious water-management journal.

“If we just want fish in our system, we can do it with hatcheries,” said Demko. “I’m not saying that’s the best way to do it, or that we should be doing it, but that’s the way the California Department of Fish and Wildlife is doing it.”

The state’s models say that by redirecting billions of gallons of our water, they’ll produce maybe 1,000 or 1,400 more salmon. You can do that for $50 in a hatchery, said Demko.

Salmon, as a species, aren’t endangered. Millions are caught off the coasts of Alaska, Canada and Washington every year. Millions more are raised in fish farms.

Why are those on our rivers doing so poorly? Because they’re being eaten by non-native predators. And virtually all scientists know it. An experiment on the Columbia River increased salmon numbers by killing non-native predators. “Why not try it here?” asked Demko.

Because that might delay the state’s water grab – dismaying Metropolitan Water District and myriad environmentalists.

“Is the goal more water, or is the goal more fish?” asked Demko. If it’s about fish, there are better solutions. Just ask Lund.

“The big problem, I think the environmental interests have in the operation of the system is they have no resources,” Lund told the panel. “They have no leverage, they have no cash register, they have no votes – directly anyway. So … the way I understand the Board would want to use (higher flows), is that it would give them an asset to negotiate away or negotiate with, and I think in that sense, it’s probably a pretty good, pretty simple way to establish that asset.”

Never mind if we get hurt. If the state had taken 50 percent of flows in 2014, ’15 and ’16, there would have been no water for irrigation.

Thousands of people lined up in December 2016 to confront the water board, offering economic studies and the state’s own data to show the devastation the loss of that much water will cause. In response, the water board didn’t change its plans – only its timing.

Gov. Jerry Brown is working feverishly to “save” the Delta while simultaneously sending more water to southern California through his California WaterFix. Why?

Because Southern Californians are getting thirsty. They no longer are allowed to overrun their supplies from Colorado River. To get more water, Metropolitan Water District began paying SoCal farmers to go fallow and stared buying up farms. Now, Met’s being sued by the Palo Verde Irrigation District.

By sending the state’s largest river, the Sacramento, through the WaterFix tunnels, our water will be needed to save the Delta. That’s why Met will likely pay for the entire $16 billion project; why it has already bought five Delta islands in the tunnel’s path.

Vance Kennedy is one of the most respected scientists ever to work on groundwater for the U.S. Geological Survey. The Modesto man is erudite, reserved and, at 94, an old-school gentleman. Kennedy worries about the impact of the water grab on irrigation, a major factor in replenishing our groundwater. He fears an eventual groundwater catastrophe.

“Is there any way we can just tell the state to go to hell?” he asked.

We could, but they’re not listening.

Mike Dunbar is editorial page editor of the Merced Sun-Star and Modesto Bee. Call 209-578-2325; email mdunbar@mercedsunstar.com