Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Big Ag Cries Big Tears; Salmon Run Dries Up

By Larry Collin

Special to The Bee
Published: Saturday, Nov. 6, 2010 - 10:00 pm | Page 5E

I've been a California commercial fisherman for almost three decades. For most of that time, Chinook salmon constituted 70 percent or more of my business. Salmon gave me a prosperous living, and they supported the communities that I called home. They fed my family – and helped feed America. I'm proud to be a salmon fisherman, proud to be part of a venerable tradition based on a sustainable – and delicious – resource.
Then in the past few years, everything changed. California's 2008 and 2009 salmon seasons were closed following a catastrophic crash in the stocks. In the area where I fish, we were allowed eight days of fishing this year. Obviously, it's tough to make a living working one week a year.
For the first four days of this year's "season," weather kept our fleet on shore. In the remaining four days, I caught one salmon.
What caused this disaster? Lack of water. Diversions from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta south to corporate farms have deprived salmon of water they need in their spawning streams. Further, huge government-run Delta pumps that send taxpayer-subsidized water south destroy great numbers of young salmon trying to migrate downriver to the ocean.
The biological facts are bad enough. Even worse are the power plays of Big Agribusiness. Faced with modest restrictions on subsidized water deliveries to protect fish, Big Ag bleated like an old sheep, claiming economic ruin. Politicians rewarded their calculated hysteria, augmenting their supplies with "emergency" deliveries.
Foremost among the corporate crybabies is Westlands Water District, at 600,000 acres the country's largest irrigation district. Westlands is a junior water rights holder, meaning it's legally the last in line for water during drought. Only a few hundred corporate entities make up this agricultural empire – plus a battery of lawyers working to overcome their junior water right status.
From all the wailing, you'd have thought Westlands was in worse shape than the salmon fishing ports. But – surprise! Westlands not only had enough water for their crops – they had leftovers. In fact, they had a 2010 surplus of about 450,000 acre-feet, enough water to supply 1.8 million urbanites for one year. So, they decided to trade 150,000 acre-feet to the Metropolitan Water District and generate $30 million of benefit for themselves.
In other words, Westlands is receiving subsidized water at low rates, then peddling it to cities to generate a windfall. Meanwhile, salmon – a public resource – are going belly-up, fishermen are going bankrupt and the communities that depend on commercial fishing, recreational angling and seafood processing are hollowing out.
Wonder why west-side corporate farmers fight against reasonable water policy? While crying "wolf" over water, they continue to plant more orchard crops, which require plentiful irrigation. They then use these plantings to justify their demands for more water. But their real agenda isn't crop security: It's control over the water. They'd like to be middlemen in the transfer of subsidized water from the Delta to southland cities. They dream of the day when all they'll have to do is watch the water flow and listen to the "ka-ching" of the cash registers.
Salmon are resilient, but they can't live on sunlight alone. They need water, and we should give it to them. Salmon fishing is one of America's most regulated industries. Fishermen understand the necessity for resource protection – but we demand a level playing field. The regulations that apply to us must also apply to the westside's water buccaneers. It's a matter of law and fairness.
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