Sunday, September 13, 2009

Editorial: It's not only fish vs. people

This story is taken from Sacbee / Opinion

Published Monday, Jun. 29, 2009

The National Marine Fisheries Service has issued a wake-up call on the dangers facing the Central Valley's salmon and, ultimately, the water system they depend on. It should be mulled and acted upon.
The wake-up call came in the form of a "biological opinion" that the fisheries service filed earlier this month. Prompted by a federal court ruling on a lawsuit by environmentalists and fishermen, it found that the ways the state and federal water projects operate threaten the survival of endangered chinook salmon and steelhead, and it required that they change their policies.
The changes the agency envisions include finding ways to get the fish around the dams and other barriers that currently stop them as they migrate upstream to spawn. With immense structures like Shasta Dam spanning the Sacramento River, and Folsom Dam the American, this will not be a simple task. It will require the construction of fish ladders, or elevators, or perhaps truck-and-haul operations. Experts aren't sure if any are feasible. The estimated price tag starts at $1 billion.
The price of not acting, however, will likely be steeper.
To begin with, the winter- and spring-run chinook salmon of the Sacramento River and the steelhead of the American are almost certainly doomed if their journeys to spawning habitat continue to be blocked.
That probably won't take salmon off diners' plates, although there are persistent questions about the taste, healthfulness and environmental impact of what's produced on fish farms.
But if these natural populations vanish, they will likely take with them the state's commercial salmon industry, which has already been shut for two years in the wake of the fish population's crash. The Fish and Game Department estimates that in 2008, the shutdown cost $255 million in revenue and more than 2,200 jobs.
Beyond that, the federal fisheries service's opinion is a wake-up call on the need for a major reassessment of state water policy. Pretty much everyone involved in the current system recognizes that it's broken, unable to store excess supply in wet years or deliver needed supply in dry ones.
The new federal rules, which will likely face a court challenge, don't require an immediate solution. The current blueprint requires studies starting later this year, trials of fish-moving procedures by 2012 and a decision on an ultimate answer by 2020.
Water officials should use that time not only to find the best way to get the fish around the dams but to explore cheaper ways to save them. One possibility being pushed by a Placer County group called Save Auburn Ravine Salmon and Steelhead seeks the restoration of 600 small creeks between Modesto and Redding. The group says these creeks were once the sites of significant fish runs and offer a much less expensive way to provide spawning habitat than laboriously transporting fish around dams.
Whatever solution is ultimately embraced, the region will likely never return to the days when so many salmon choked the Sacramento River that Indians and settlers could catch dinner with their hands. But a revived commercial fishing industry, and an answer to one relatively small piece of the state's water policy puzzle, is a pretty good consolation prize. We should try to seize it.

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