Monday, February 23, 2009

Wild salmon or subsidized cotton and rice?
Choose wisely.

Our Northern California February rain will continue for at least another week, the state government finally passed a budget, and the winter steelhead and salmon runs are underway. The common thread to these stories, is the future of the salmon fishery in California hangs in the balance.

DWSUWF has posted stories before about the plight of our state salmonids. Last year, the California salmon fishery was closed for the first time in history, a "canary in the coal mine" indicator if there ever was one. In the fall, a comprehensive California Trout sponsored study documented as many as 20 species of California trout, steelhead, and salmon with a poor prognosis for survival. Time for an update.

Last week the Chronicle reported more bad news:
"A record-low number of chinook salmon returned to rivers in California's Central Valley last year, indicating that severe restrictions on salmon fishing are likely again this year, federal regulators said.The Pacific Fishery Management Council reported this week that 66,264 natural and hatchery chinook or "king" salmon adults were estimated to have returned to the Sacramento River basin in 2008 to spawn, the lowest estimate on record."
Chron Outdoors writer Tom Steinstra nets it out:
"The story this past week that reported the lowest number of salmon in history to swim from the ocean, through the bay and to the Sacramento River has several shocking sub plots. It's now likely that all salmon fishing will be shut down again this year off the Bay Area coast. Killer whales, or orcas, could face a population crash because their primary diet is salmon and they could have difficulty finding other food. Now get this, from the fine print inside a report by the National Marine Fisheries Service: Of the salmon that spawn or are released from hatcheries in the Sacramento River downstream of Redding, only 20 percent make it to the Delta because of water projects. Of that 20 percent that make it to the Delta, 60 percent die because of more water projects. So for the juvenile salmon that start their journey in Northern California, only 8 percent make it to the Bay to head out to the ocean. The best suggestion is tell L.A. and other water grabbers to shut off their California Aqueduct faucet and build several desalination plants."
The Sacramento Bee expands on the political significance of the Orca angle:
"Rea's agency is assessing the effect of California water operations on four protected species: winter- and spring-run salmon, Central Valley steelhead and green sturgeon. A key focus of the report is to minimize threats to these species caused by water diversions in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the hub for 60 percent of California's freshwater supplies.Several observers said the link between salmon and the charismatic orca is certain to elevate California's water conflicts in the public mind. Though last year was historically bad for California fish and water supplies, restoration of the state's Delta and rivers has yet to grab the public's imagination like environmental problems in Florida's Everglades or the Brazilian rain forest. Much of the debate over the Delta has focused on the tiny Delta smelt, a threatened species few people have seen.The orca could change the game."
There is a clear political appetite to distribute the blame for the collapse of the Salmon fishery across a variety of potential causes, including global warming, increased predation from non-native species, changing ocean currents, diseases spread from farmed salmon, municipal pollution in the Delta, or whatever. It is all bullshit. There is exactly one primary reason for the spectacular nosedive of the salmon population over the last few years (as well as the delta smelt and striped bass). The immediate cause of the Sacramento salmon run collapse is water diversion out of the Delta from Northern California to Southern California and agricultural interests. Over a longer term, we can point to decades of water mismanagement by the state and federal government.

Blogger Pundita gets it right:
"After decades of California's inadequate water policies and studiously short-sighted hydropolitics (the politics of water and water resources) the only hope left this year is ample rain and snow. If the miracle doesn't materialize in a year expected to be dry, there's just simply not enough water to meet projected demands... I do not want to hear that California's water crisis is the result of global warming. It's the result of human nature compounded by stupidity. And three guesses who'll have to pick up the tab for rescuing Californians from that much stupidity."
Pundita also cross-posted an excellent analysis by Procrustes blogging at RBO with a detailed overview of the continuing California water wars and the political ground being staked out on every side:
"Bottom line? In addition to current drought conditions, decrepit infrastructure, invasive species, and the water quality itself at risk, that is? Reduced water deliveries and negative “economic impact” to the SWP and U.S.-operated CVP. M-O-N-E-Y."
Procrustes references a 2005 SF Chronicle article that points to the root of the crisis using the Westlands Water District as an example:
"Now, Westlands and other districts are successfully renewing their long-term contracts at current levels and at prices far below those paid by the state’s growing cities, despite protests that pumping large volumes of water south is killing Northern California’s fisheries. Westlands is singled out for particular criticism because of its size and the amount of water it receives, but also because the irrigation of its fields produces toxic drain water, threatening state waterways. Some critics say much of its acreage should be taken out of production.S o far, about 200 contracts have been approved, and 80 more are pending, including Westlands’. About 6 million acre feet of annual water deliveries is at stake. Farmers who get federal water are generally charged a fraction of the free-market rate."
David Zetland at Aguanomics puts this agricultural water use in perspective while quoting an analysis by Lloyd Carter:
"In a typical year the California agricultural industry uses about 34 million acre-feet of water or more than 80% of the developed water consumed by urban and agricultural users in the state. Between 30% and 50% of that water is used to grow four low value, water-intensive crops: cotton, rice, alfalfa and irrigated pasture. Those four low value, water-intensive crops contributed about $2.5 billion to California's economy in 2005. All of California agricultural production was about $32 billion in 2005. Gross state product in 2005 was about $1.62 trillion. Thus, the contribution of all agriculture to the state's economy was just under 2% of gross state product (1.975 %)and the contribution of cotton, rice, alfalfa and irrigated pasture was an infinitesimal 0.15 of 1% (fifteen one-hundredths of one percent). Westlands claims an annual gross in excess of a billion dollars which would be considerably less if all the public subsidies were factored in (cheap water, power subsidies, crop subsidies, interest free construction loan). Westlands is not even a blip on the state economy's radar screen, only about three percent of California's farm gross and a tiny, tiny fraction of one percent of the state's whole economy."
All insightful posts and highly recommended. These bloggers are now on my 'roll.

In California there is more money in agriculture that there is in fish. Where there is money, there is politics and pandering politicians. As the drought loomed last summer, a bipartisan alliance between Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Democratic Senator Diane Feinstein began stumping for a massive new peripheral canal and dam project to divert more Delta water. With the signing of the budget agreement and Feinstein on board, the project may again be moving to the front burner. Maybe it will even qualify for Obama stimulus infrastructure funding. Bipartisanship is overrated.

The current rainfall may (or may not) ease the water supplies and hardship sufficiently that a cease-fire in the California water wars can be maintained this year. But the underlying equation will not change. There is simply not enough water in the north for both a healthy salmon watershed, a cheap subsidized water supply for expanding valley agricultural interests, and an increasingly thirsty Los Angeles/San Diego metro area. Something has got to give. A choice must be made.

Speaking for myself, I'd rather have more wild salmon in California, than artificially cheap subsidized rice, cotton, and vegetables. But that is just me.

This problem was created by government and politicians, and can only be undone by those selfsame politicians. If you agree, encourage your representatives to do the right thing by signing a letter and petition at Water for Fish.


Anonymous said...

Ah, when economy, politics and livelihood all collide, the not so pretty picture it paints! I hope Cali state will be able to rise from this. Personally, I'd like wild salmon too. Anything inorganic is just wrong for me, sometimes I can even taste the chicken feeds in boiled eggs!

mw said...

Oh, I am sure the state will do just fine. I am not so sanguine about the Salmon though.

Thanks for stopping by and for the comment.

David Zetland said...

Thanks for the link.

Note that I am Zetland and the blog is aGuanomics...



mw said...

Sorry about that. Fixed now. Thanks for stopping by . You have a very informative blog.

Alison Kerr said...

Difficult questions for difficult times. I'd like to have the salmon, but if someone told me kids would starve if we save the salmon or something, then I'd just not be able to make a decision.

mw said...

No one is talking about starving kids. Water in California is diverted from the Sacramento Delta watershed by the government at below market rates to grow water-intensive crops like alfafa, cotton and rice in dry desert valleys.

Rice is grown in other places. No one eats alfalfa or cotton. What we are talking about - worst case - is potentially seeing the cost of some foodstuffs increasing, or some of these water intensive crops not being grown in areas that would require the same water that is also needed to sustain the salmon runs.

Because the Agriculture interests have a stronger richer lobby that conservationists and salmon fishermen, they get the water - and we lose the salmon.

Thanks for the comment.

Captcha said...

You'd rather see wild salmon live than "artificially cheap blah blah blah blah." Next time you go to a grocery store and see that price is rising, and bitch that your blog isn't keeping your head above water, please kindly unplug your head from your ass and realize the Westlands are the reason you ever had it so good.