Restoring the San Joaquin River for non-endangered red herring
Editor’s note: For clarity, this article has been modified to include an excerpt from the letter by Robert Pyke.
June 11, 2012
By Wayne Lusvardi
Should we save the endangered red herring fish in California’s San Joaquin River?
The question is meant to fool you. Herring is a saltwater fish not found off the coast of California or in the fresh waters of the San Joaquin River.
A red herring is a fish that has a reddish color after being been dried and smoked. It has such a foul smell that in Hollywood movies red herrings were used by escaped jailbirds to mislead hound dogs that were tracking them. The term “red herring” today is used to describe anything that is misleading or distracting from the central issue.
And that is what the issue about restoring Chinook salmon in California’s San Joaquin River is all about: a red herring meant to draw attention away from the central issue about the sham restoration of the San Joaquin River.
The San Joaquin is Central California’s largest river. It starts in the Sierra Nevada mountain range, flows through the San Joaquin Valley, then ultimately into the San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean. It flows through or near Clovis, Fresno, Madera, Turlock, Modesto, Stockton and the Sacramento Delta on its way to the Bay. It is heavily dammed to prevent flooding in the Central Valley. The river has not flowed naturally since the Friant Dam was built in the 1940s. Its flows have been so drastically reduced to prevent the Delta from becoming a periodic “inland sea” that salmon no longer exist in the river.
Rep. Denham Delays Restoring Salmon in San Joaquin River
On June 5, the U.S. House of Representatives approved an amendment by U.S. Congressman Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, to H.R. 5325, the Energy and Water Related Agencies Appropriation Act of 2013. It would prohibit the premature introduction of salmon into an inadequate San Joaquin River system.
Without full restoration of the flows of the river, the salmon could not migrate from the ocean to upstream spawning pools.
Blogger Doug Obegi at the National Resources Defense Council’s Switchboard website seized on the House’s action to accuse Denham of trying to undo the court approved settlement to restore the San Joaquin River for salmon runs.
As Mike Wade of the Farm Water Coalition responded:
“[Obegi’s] criticism of Rep. Denham’s amendment and claiming the SJR Exchange Contractors are reneging on the river restoration settlement are efforts to mislead public opinion without providing all of the facts. The restoration agreement provided protection for third parties along the river, including farmers within the Exchange Contractors’ region. Past efforts have already seen these farmers suffer from undue seepage problems caused by high water releases into the river. The agreement also called for multiple construction projects and it was acknowledged that early introduction of salmon a year or two before the completion of the projects might take place; but none of the necessary construction projects needed for a successful fish passage have begun. It could be 5-10 years or more to reach completion of the Phase 1 projects once construction begins, depending on funding. Why introduce salmon that are listed as endangered that stand no chance of reaching the ocean? There is not much to be shown for the $100 million already expended for the restoration. Those groups pushing for the salmon introduction insisted that the restoration effort could be accomplished for $250 million. It is readily recognized that this number will fall far short of the amount required. Now is not the time to compound this oversight with efforts such as early introduction of salmon that serve no purpose.”
Thus far, $70 million has been spent on San Joaquin River restoration mainly on environmental studies with nothing to show for it. No physical improvements have been made to bring about restored salmon runs in the San Joaquin River. That’s $70 million that might as well have been flushed down the proverbial toilet to run to the sea.
This is one reason why California has spent $18.7 billion on five water bonds (Propositions 12, 13, 40, 50 and 84) since 2000 and has no added water to show for it. Instead, the bond monies have gone for open space acquisitions, greenscaping and environmental studies around upscale residential enclaves.
Using the “red herring” distraction of alleged obstructionism by Denham, Obegi is trying to shift the public’s attention away from the squandering of public funds on environmental studies with nothing to show for it.
Where is Water for River Restoration Coming From?
This begs the question: where is the water for restoring salmon runs in the San Joaquin River coming from? It is coming from U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein’s H.R. 146, the San Joaquin River Restoration Act, sponsored by Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J. It was passed as part of the Omnibus Lands Act of 2009 when Democrats had a supermajority in Congress and the presidency.
Feinstein’s bill took contracted water from Central Valley farmers to restore salmon runs along the San Joaquin River. It also hiked federal water contract rates for farmers to pay for the restoration. And it subjected farmers to paying environmental mitigations to commercial fishing, recreational and real estate development interests in Northern California when their water contracts are due. The farmers not only had water taken from them, but would have to pay for a gigantic $1 billion redevelopment scheme for the San Joaquin River cloaked as a salmon restoration project.
After Republicans took back control of the House in 2010, Republican Rep. Devin Nunes of Tulare authored H.R. 1837, the San Joaquin Valley Water Reliability Act, to repeal Feinstein’s water grab. H.R. 1837 was folded into Utah Senator Orrin Hatch’s “The West Act,” which has been blocked in the U.S. Senate by Feinstein and Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.
This is the problem of not obtaining true “consent of the governed” — in this case, those who have to pay for such schemes; or of not relying on voluntary market transactions. Without voluntary consent of those taxed or a market transaction, what happens is an endless “water war.” This is tragic, as an engineer has recently revealed that the Sacramento Delta has too much water in wet years.
Northern Cal Water in Wet Years
Robert Pyke, a geological engineer, recently wrote an interesting letter to Ken Salazar, the secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, and John Laird, the secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency. Pyke wrote:
“the inherent variability in precipitation in Northern California has not been addressed in the [Bay Delta Conservation Plan] to date. I know that they now talk about taking more water in wet winters and less water in dry winters but that is just talk without there being any mechanism to actually accomplish this. When I met recently with Secretary Laird and suggested that what was needed was a plumbing system that allowed the extraction of up to 8-10 million acre feet in wet winters to make up for the fact that you can’t take more than 2-4 million acre feet in dry winters, he said that he had never heard anyone suggest that previously. Maybe so, but that is indicative of a problem.”
Now, 8 to 10 million acre-feet excess water in wet winters is enough water to serve 8 million urban people per year over a five-year drought; or irrigate 533,000 acres of farmland per year over a five-year dry spell.
But the present conveyance system, the California Aqueduct, cannot take more than 2 to 4 million acre-feet per year. Thus, there is need of a new, larger conveyance system — a so-called Peripheral Canal or Delta Tunnels — to convey the excess water out of the Delta during wet years, to farmers and cities which then can store it dry-year usage.
By taking the excess water during wet years from the Delta, the threat of flooding and of an earthquake breaching heavily flooded levees would be reduced.
So environmentalists continue to shake down farmers in the Central Valley for contracted water and higher water rates to pay for a $1 billion water-related redevelopment scheme along the San Joaquin River. But they are also opposed to the completion of a Peripheral Canal or Tunnel system that would provide farmers with more water for banking in local groundwater basins during wet years for use in dry years. Northern Californians and environmentalists want to eat their water cake and have it too! And they are opposed to any water for farmers and cities in return.
Then they have the nerve to call elected representatives of farming districts “obstructionists” to a one-sided so-called court “settlement” mandating the restoration of the San Joaquin River.
Bad Water Law
As Judge M. Smith wrote in the dissenting opinion in a June 1, 2012 9th Circuit Court of Appeals case, Karuk Indian Tribe vs. U.S. Forest Service, Central Valley farmers will suffer from the impact of “extremist” environmental decisions. Smith pointed out that, because judges are unelected, they should be limited to interpreting environmental law, not creating de facto new legislation for which they are unaccountable to anybody (see pages 6126-6127 of the case).
Welcome to the wonderful world of California’s water wars, where water flows to the San Joaquin River are to be restored for a fictional endangered Red Herring fish that is a ruse for a $1 billion river-related redevelopment scheme and jobs program for environmentalists. Environmental disputes are almost never really about preserving some fish or ecological habitat. They are about wealth effects created from water-related redevelopment for commercial fishing, recreation and tourist lodging and real estate development to be handed out to the politically connected.
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