Delta’s bounty is a shared treasure – except when greed cuts ahead in line

By Brett Baker
The Sacramento Bee

My family has been farming in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta since 1851. The Sierra’s Gold Rush lured my ancestors to California – but the Delta made them stay. Gold played out in a few years, but the resources of the Delta have sustained our region of the state for over 150 years now. The rich soil and the reliable flows of fresh, sweet water from the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers yielded a bounty of crops that brought prosperity to the region’s farmers and fed Sacramento and the cities of the Bay Area.

We’re still at it today. I represent the sixth generation of my family to farm the land on Sutter Island directly adjacent to Steamboat Slough. We continue to farm 30 acres of pears and sell them at local farmers’ markets and throughout the country.

Continuing my family’s 160-year vocation is a tradition I hope to pass down to my own children.

My business is farming, but my education is in biology. I earned a degree in wildlife, fish and conservation biology from the University of California, Davis, and spent summers working for my professor Peter Moyle. I went on to the California Department of Fish and Game in the agency’s Heritage Wild Trout Program and as an adviser to then Lt. Gov. John Garamendi on water and agriculture issues. As a result, my perspective on Delta water controversies is perhaps more nuanced than many. I don’t view water as a zero-sum game – we have enough for agriculture, our cities and our fisheries.

But I also think we have to change the way our public water is distributed. We can’t continue exporting in excess of 7 million to 8 million acre-feet of Delta water a year, selling it at subsidized rates to a handful of corporate agribusiness enterprises in the western San Joaquin Valley. This relentless hijacking of the Delta’s water threatens the hundreds of family farmers who cultivate the region’s 750,000 acres of cropland, destroys our precious salmon fisheries and actually undermines Southern California’s urban reliance on the Delta.

The Delta’s fisheries are in immediate and dire jeopardy. This affects more than the fish – the chinook salmon, steelhead, Delta smelt and other native fishes faced with extinction. It is also devastating the families and small towns that depend on commercial and sport fishing.

For years, “Westside” corporate farmers have claimed water exports are not the primary cause of the Delta’s ecological collapse. They have made the disingenuous argument that fish don’t need more water – instead, they blame the decline on invasive species, urban run-off, agricultural chemicals and inadequate sewage treatment – anything that might divert attention from the impact the pumps continue to have on the system.

I agree that all these factors play a role in the Delta’s struggling ecosystem, but they are all tied to overpumping, which either causes them or makes them worse. Export pumping is by far the biggest problem. This point was made explicitly in a recent staff report from the California Water Resources Control Board, which concluded water exports must be cut by half to allow sufficient freshwater flows necessary for the survival of these critically endangered species.

It’s really that simple: If we want to resuscitate our once-mighty salmon runs, we have to allow twice as much water as is currently flowing through the Delta.

In my opinion these flows should be observed as part of the Delta Stewardship Council’s Interim Delta Plan. Specific biological responses or target fish populations should be developed and be observed before any additional conveyance structures are considered. Should these flows elicit a favorable response, they should be considered as part of any conservation measure by the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP).

Corporate farmers in the western San Joaquin Valley are pillorying the water board report, and this is understandable. They are obtaining taxpayer-subsidized water at incredibly low rates, and they are selling much of it to south state cities at enormously inflated prices. They understand their future is in marketing water and building homes, not growing crops. Their interests are not the interests of the people of California, including most farmers.

The state Water Resources Control Board’s staff report is founded on sound science and consistent with previous state board findings. For example, the 1978 Water Right Decision 1485 on supplemental water calculations declares: “To provide full mitigation of project impacts on all fishery species now would require the virtual shutting down of the project export pumps.” Sadly, this report was shelved and never saw the light of day because of this inconvenient truth.

Given the charged political climate, we must commend the staffers who had the courage to support the data instead of yielding to prevailing pressures. We need to stand behind them- and we must do everything we can to ensure the flow recommendations in the report are honored and given the consideration they deserve.

To read the article online: The Sacramento Bee click here

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