Federal fish biologists are right

By John McManus

The other day, Gov. Jerry Brown said his proposal to tunnel under the Delta to transfer more water south was being held up by low-level, federal fish biologists. Brown said, “lower level [Federal] officials” aren’t being helpful … in fact quite the opposite.”

The governor was repeating something first uttered by Tom Birmingham, manager of the Westlands Water District. Birmingham complained about these same federal biologists to members of his water district two weeks prior. Birmingham went a step further and said legislation would be needed to silence scientific and biologic concerns federal fish scientists are raising.

Salmon communities have seen this movie before.

The Golden Gate Salmon Association, salmon fishermen and related businesses, learned quite a bit about efforts to gag federal fish biologists in 2004. Then, federal salmon biologists were asked to sign off on a plan to take more northern California water and hand it over, mostly to San Joaquin Valley growers. The biologists were asked how this would affect two runs of federally-protected salmon. They said taking more salmon water would jeopardize the continued existence of the salmon. This was not the answer the San Joaquin growers wanted, so they leaned on their political connections in the George W. Bush administration and managed to get the jeopardy finding overruled. The federal official who forced the reversal was subsequently given a promotion.

What happened next was catastrophe for salmon and salmon communities. Way too much salmon water was diverted and shipped south, killing untold millions of salmon. By 2007, the salmon fishery collapsed and, in 2008 and 2009, for the first time in California’s history, ocean fishing for salmon was shut. This only happened because the federal scientists who stood up and told the truth were overridden. American taxpayers paid for disaster relief that went to salmon communities.

We have our own minor disagreements with federal fish biologists every once in a great while. However, in this case they’re telling us something we need to pay close attention to. Biologists from both the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have correctly pointed out that if the twin, 40-foot, water diversion tunnels are built and divert excessive amounts of Sacramento River salmon water to junior water rights growers in the San Joaquin Valley, it’ll increase already grave problems for salmon and other wildlife in California. This could lead to the demise of the salmon fishery and the loss of tens of thousands of jobs that depend on it.

If it wasn’t obvious before the drought, it should be now: giving away more water than the state can spare is killing us. Governor Brown, listen to what the science says, not the big money.

To his credit, Jerry Brown has a record of understanding and communicating the finite nature of our natural resources. In his recent drought declaration, Brown restated that water is one of those finite resources. But his gigantic twin tunnels project, as currently construed, flies in the face of that reality. Attacking the messengers, in this case the federal fish biologists, is wrong. It was wrong for Bush to order an override of the 2004 jeopardy finding, and it would be wrong now.

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John McManus is the Executive Director of the Golden Gate Salmon Association.