SACRAMENTO, California — The steelhead trout my wife and I cooked for dinner earlier this week seemed pricey. The small package cost $8.99, but it really was quite a deal when one considers what the Obama administration and California state officials are paying to save a handful – maybe a dozen or so – of the same fish on the Stanislaus River.
Anyone who has paid attention to the headlines news knows that California is entering the fourth year of a devastating drought. Despite a rainstorm this week, the snow pack in the Sierra Nevada is virtually gone. The reservoirs are depleted. As we head into the dry season, the state is passing mandatory conservation rules and stepping up fines for profligate water users.
Yet at the same time Californians are told there is no water, their officials are about to dump tens of thousands of acre feet of this precious resource – enough to handle the annual demands of some decent-sized cities – to prod a few steelhead to make their way from the Sierra foothills through the Delta estuary and into the San Francisco Bay.
Officials are demanding a series of “pulse flows” from the New Melones Reservoir. Apparently, steelhead sometimes like to just hang around the lake and don’t have much motivation to take an arduous journey to the sea. The flows will help drag them westward and presumably will improve the temperature of the river water to comfort their journey. Local water districts are currently defying federal orders.
A typical flow is 30,000 acre feet of water. Roughly speaking, water costs about $750 an acre foot. That’s $22.5 million for starters. The number of endangered fish? Maybe a dozen or two. We’re not talking the number of species of fish – but the actual number of fish. If we divide that amount by, say, 15 fish, we’re talking $1.5 million each. I’d say my dinner came rather cheaply.
Environmentalists argue that these fish are something of a bellwether of ecological health. But biologists I’ve interviewed scoff at the notion the water flows will even help these critters. The same wildlife agencies squandering scarce water resources to help a few fish previously introduced invasive fish species that are likely to eat them before they ever make it to the Delta.
It seems unlikely the environmentalists and agencies that promote these rules (often the agencies are dominated by board members who come from the environmental community) really care much about these specific fish. They use the fish to advance their broader ecological goals. Many activists want to restore habitats to their natural state (e.g., removing dams, as they are doing on the Klamath River in Siskiyou County). Never mind that had it not been for the dams, there would be no fish in that area this time of year. The rivers would have long run dry.
I quoted U.S. Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., in my U-T San Diego column: “The policy is breathtakingly stupid at both the state and federal levels and is being administered by ideological zealots who can’t be reasoned with.” That’s exactly right.
News reports routinely portray the current debates here as part of the age-old fight between farmers and urban populations. (We often hear the old saying, “Whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting over.”) But while there’s some truth to these disputes, few point out the reality. About half the state’s water is used for environmental purposes – i.e., allowed to flow out to the ocean to enhance riverbeds and habitats along the way. And environmentalists are so powerful, they often get their way.
People get the drops that are left over, along with lectures about why we need to conserve more. By the way, the people in the communities who might soon lose their water at New Melones and nearby Lake Tulloch have already cut back water usage by 20 percent in the last two years – but you know that amount will never satisfy the irrational folks McClintock mentions.
That’s a lot of money per fish. And it’s nowhere nearly as silly as the $39-billion Delta tunnels that are designed largely to save a handful of Delta Smelt caught each year in the fish screens at the pumps near Tracy. Do the math on that one. That species won’t be found at the Safeway because its only real use is as a bait fish.
Keep this in mind as you hear people say the problem is that so many people live in a desert-like region. Is it the fault of Californians or of their governments, which prefer to fine and regulate them so they have enough water to squander on a few fish?