The water wars - Page 6

San Francisco Bay and the delta are dying. Salmon runs are collapsing. Droughts are getting worse. And big agriculture still wants more water
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Illustration by Caitlin Kuhwald

"They say it's 'our water.' But the rivers in California belong to all the people."

DEAD FISH

A series of studies, court decisions, and a Blue Ribbon Delta Vision Task Force convened by the governor have all found that massive water exports out of the delta pose a tremendous environmental problem, and the delta smelt is a mere indicator of the trouble. Failing to ensure adequate freshwater flows through the delta could spell doom for California salmon runs and sound a death knell for the San Francisco Bay-Delta Estuary. And many contend that building a peripheral canal would be the quickest route to the delta's demise.

According to data Porgans & Associates has collected, excessive delta water exports are aligned with salmon-population nosedives. The numbers tell a tale: high water exports correlate with dramatic decreases in salmon returns after the fish's three-year spawning cycle. Conversely, fish populations bounce back following years of reduced pumping.

Delta water exports reached an all-time high of 6.7 million acre-feet in 2005, and three years later, the salmon returns were so low that the commercial salmon harvest was cancelled for the first time. It happened again this year.

While Westlands farmers bemoan what they call a "man-made drought," they're not the only ones facing job loss due to delta water issues — an estimated $255 million was lost last year as a result of low salmon returns, according to California Department of Fish and Game estimates. A report from the Pacific Institute, an Oakland-based environmental research group, estimates puts farm losses due to water shortages at $245 million as of midsummer 2008.

"This closure is among the nation's worst man-made fisheries disasters," an NRDC report notes. "It is on par with the loss of Atlantic cod fishery, and its economic impact for the fishing industry is comparable to the losses that followed the Exxon Valdez oil spill."

It's said that California salmon were so plentiful 70 years ago that farmers plucked them from waterways with pitchforks. Now biologists say those salmon runs that haven't already been listed as threatened or endangered are in a losing battle with worsening water quality and massive water pumps in the Delta.

An estimated 90,000 juvenile salmon die prematurely each year by being sucked into the heavy-duty pumps, according to a U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and Department of Water Resources study. Sometimes the pumping levels are so high it reverses river flows, causing salmon to swim upstream instead of out to sea. "If you or I go out and shoot an eagle, we'll go to jail," said Barrigan-Parrilla, from Restore the Delta. "But DWR has no accountability to the Endangered Species Act — they're grinding up fish."

The salmon also suffer from poor water quality, which environmentalists say is a consequence of the voluminous freshwater diversions. If the freshwater isn't available to flush out the ecosystem, the negative effects of toxins and pollutants discharged into the Delta are amplified, and the water gets warmer, dirtier, and saltier. The ramifications of salmon decline can ripple along the food chain, putting even southern resident killer whales, which feed heavily on Sacramento River salmon in the ocean, at risk.

The impacts of freshwater diversions aren't limited to the region's ecology: delta agriculture is taking a hit, too. The construction of a peripheral canal would "destroy the estuary and shift economic problems from one geographic location to another," said Barrigan-Parrilla. "Agriculture in the southern delta would not make it." South delta farmers have already had to contend with increasing levels of salinity due to the massive freshwater diversions, she says.