The headline for an article for the Charlotte Observer cries “Fish or farms? The issue is the bill that is being pushed by Southern California water users that some say will weaken enviromental laws. Others say the bill would save farms. The writer states “a new battle rages over California Water.” But is it really a new battle? The issue with water and fish has been around since the first listing of the Coho salmon, over twenty years ago and brought a group of farmers together to develop what would become the Sacramento-Central Valley Fish Screen Program. The work done in the Sacramento Valley to enhance and protect fisheries has been a success, limited only by the funds needed for restoration, screening and permitting costs. A recent celebration of the success of fish restoration in Butte Creek attended by noted water experts, as well as southern California water agencies that have worked toward a solution that does not mean the end of the species. In the 1980’s, the spring run of Chinook salmon in Butte Creek had dropped below 100, now that same stream has over 10,000 returning salmon. The success was not at the expense of farming, but with the cooperation of local farms to coordinate water flows when needed and from Metropolitan Water, who paid for several of the projects that made the restoration possible. While a battle makes for good headlines and fundraisers, the real work and success is only possible when projects occur in the field and not in a powerpoint for yet another study.
John McManus, said this in the Charlette Observer article, “As far as we can tell, if this thing were to become law it would probably be the end of salmon in California,” said McManus, executive director of the Golden Gate Salmon Association, a nonprofit Petaluma-based group that represents sport and commercial fishermen.
McManus said diverting more water to agriculture would end up hurting people as well as fish. “These are fish that provide a livelihood for people up and down the coast and in the Central Valley,” he said.
Over twenty years ago, Family Water Alliance made the decision to work toward agricultural water that would work for fish and farms. It didn’t make headlines, but it was the right thing to do for fish and farms. When one industry is sacrificed for another then we all pay the price.
When people come together around projects that are good for the community, innovative solutions can be found. An example of this cooperation is the trucking program that is being credited with the success of the salmon season this year. Early predications from state and federal scientists were that runs could be as low as 230,000 and might be so low that there would be no “salmon season.” Fishermen credit the high returning numbers this year on a program that in 2014 trucked salmon from the Colman National Fish Hatchery to fish pens located in the bay. This allowed the small salmon to be released in small batches to avoid predators. Fishermen also say that optimal weather conditions have made this a perfect season for salmon.
Some of the successes happening in the west were the focus at the Family Farm Alliance meeting this February in Las Vegas. Speakers on a panel about program on the Yakima River and other river basin programs, highlighted the success they have had coming together to find solutions to water use issues. One used money through a smart water program to upgrade irrigation and develop a river basin integrated management plan. Another group worked during the drought to build community support for forest work in the watershed to the point where they used the work they had done on the watershed to come up with a plan to pipe water to stranded fish.
Fish have a huge impact on the rural economy of California. We need more fishermen and more farmers and it does not have to be a choice between one or the other, but we must also do more than just study the problem. California cannot afford to wait, we must act now to find solutions. A quote by former California Secretary of Agriculture, AJ Kawamura, says it best, “ We need less think tanks and more do tanks.”