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A Dead-End Year For West Coast Fish

Much of the abundance of Pacific Northwest forests, meadows, and waterways is due to the region's fisheries. Salmon, for example, are crucial to the health of river and stream communities. Their carcasses provide enormous quantities of marine nutrients that historically have fertilized vegetation throughout entire watersheds. Scientific journal articles will tell you as much. So will people from a wide variety of cultural, ethnic and geographical backgrounds, whether the The Inuit of the Canadian Arctic, the First Nations people of the Klamath River basin, or many fishermen on the Mendocino Coast.

Unfortunately, at least two hundred distinct runs of Pacific salmon, steelhead, and sea-run cutthroat stocks from California, Oregon, Idaho, and Washington are already extinct or at risk of extinction. Let's review some of the reasons.

First, there is agribusiness. Agribusiness uses roughly 80 percent of California's developed water supply, while urban and residential use accounts for less than 15 percent. There are dams, which capture more than 60 percent of California's water run-off, and there are reservoirs, power plants, pumping plants, canals, aqueducts, gates, tunnels, and other machinations that control exactly where the water goes and who gets it. In the process, these machinations have made most of the state's major rivers incapable of supporting wild salmon.

Then there's industrial logging. Here on the California North Coast, the Environmental Protection Agency regards most rivers as “impaired,” and most of them because they have been partially buried by sediment. Historically, logging has caused enormous quantities of soil erosion that discharge sediment into streams. Sedimentation results in flooding, landslides, diminished water quality, and scoured and destabilized streambeds (and damage to property). Fish suffocate. Steams die.

Some logging operations — like those of Sierra Pacific Industries, Green Diamond Resources Company, Weyerhauser, or Gualala Redwoods Timber — are much worse than others. Even timber corporations that stridently claim they are benefitting fish, such as Mendocino Redwood Company, do the opposite overall.

There are roads and paved surfaces. Roads alter water runoff patterns and permanently disrupt subsurface water flow. There is pollution, which toxifies the water supply (here in Mendo, the overwhelming share of toxic run-off into streams emanates from vineyards). There's propaganda and misinformation, which pollute our discourse and poison our understanding of why the fish are dying. And there are political and regulatory officials, whose main function (with rare exceptions) is to paralyze the public by making absurd claims regarding these matters that seem palatable to some, confusing to others, and discouraging to still others.

Clear enough?

But fish are an incredibly valuable metric of cultural health. Without fish, many indigenous cultures cease to be who they are. Without fish, the land and water suffer. No fish would mean no fishing industry.

I've decided to look back on the year nearly passed in an unconventional way: by presenting a chronology of events relevant to fisheries, with a focus on drought-parched California. If you've read my contributions to the AVA and other publications, many of these events will be familiar to you.

January: In spite of a wet fall, the early-winter is shaping up to be one of the driest on record in California. Perhaps even worse, recorded snow-pack levelse in the Sierras and other mountain ranges — which account for much of California's freshwater supply — are at record lows.

February: At a Feb. 18th State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) meeting in Sacramento, SWRCB Executive Director Tom Howard movingly apologizes for state and federal water agencies’s (including the SWRCB’s) great ecological failure of the previous year: the destruction of 95 percent of both the winter- and spring-run Chinook salmon brood years. Young fry for both runs were largely cooked by water released from the Shasta Reservoir through Keswick reservoir northeast of Redding. The water was too warm to sustain a sensitive life stage of these great fish. Howard vows the same will never happen again.

But at the same meeting, appointed Board members and Howard hear plaintive cries from San Joaquin Valley growers for as much exports as could be spared to preserve their multi-generation businesses.

On the local front: The Sonoma County Winegrowers conduct an event in Windsor called “Drought and Water Management Issues Meeting for Growers.” In the meeting's final presentation, wine industry attorney Peter J. Kiel of Ellison, Schneider & Harris LLP and Tito Sasaki of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau make a presentation called “Proposed Russian River and North Bay Water District.” Kiel delivers a summary of California's new groundwater regulations. The two men discuss creating new Sonoma and Mendocino irrigation districts, with the aim of these public agencies being to serve as representatives to the “groundwater sustainability agencies” mandated by the new groundwater regulations into being. The intention is to advocate on behalf of regional irrigators in state and federal processes.

March: Going into the spring and summer, California's largest reservoirs are at about 43 percent of their capacity. Caving to pressure, Water Board Executive Director Howard authorizes opening the reservoir spigot, sending 4,000-7,000 cubic feet of water per second to Central Valley farmers, who will ultimately receive 75 percent of their water contract allotments in spite of the record drought.

April: Jerry Brown stands on a Sierra summit barren of snow and announces the state’s first-ever mandatory water restrictions.

Meanwhile, a trawl that monitors the delta smelt’s population finds only one fish. As the Center For Biological Diversity notes, “The tiny delta smelt is one of the best indicators of environmental conditions in the San Francisco Bay-Delta, an ecologically important estuary that is a major hub for California’s water system — and an ecosystem that is now rapidly unraveling.”

Largely because of record levels of pumping from the San Francisco Bay Delta to southern agribusiness interests and municipal water agencies across recent decades, as well as pollutants and harmful nonnative species that thrive in the degraded delta, the smelt is now considered to be doomed, if not quite gone. Right behind them are green sturgeon, Central Valley steelhead trout, river lamprey, Sacramento splittail, and Longfin smelt.

The same month, the Wall Street Journal publishes a news column wherein author Allysia Finley pinpoints the smelt as the cause of grief and pain for farmers in the San Joaquin Valley because laws protecting the fish have at times restricted the flow of water to orchards and fields, labeling the tiny fish "the cause célèbre of environmentalists and bête noire of parched farmers."

During the drought, however, the smelt have had nothing to do with water cutbacks from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. Rather, pumping restrictions in the delta have mainly served to protect the drinking water of millions of Californians and numerous farmers in the Delta region itself. The pumping restrictions are keeping freshwater flowing through the delta so that salty ocean water cannot push too far inland and ruin water supplies.

On the local front: State Water Board Executive Director Thomas Howard and California Department of Fish and Wildlife Director Charles Bonham publish a Santa Rosa Press Democrat op-ed called “ A plea to North Coast to help coho salmon, which exhorts residents of four Russian River tributaries — Mark West, Green Valley, Dutch Bill, and Mill creeks — to do all they can to conserve water to help stave off extinction of coho salmon. Concurrently, Water Board staff members send letters to residents in all four creeks warning that they will enact emergency regulations if not enough residents conserve water.

May: Water Board Executive Director Howard announces that temperatures in Shasta Reservoir are significantly warmer than expected and that these warmer temperatures will likely make it impossible to keep this brood year’s spawning winter-run Chinook salmon alive. Most of the extant cold water has already been released downstream to agribusiness and municipal users.

Meanwhile, Delta farmers with senior water rights struck a deal with the State Water Board to reduce their water consumption by 25 percent to show their good faith, sharing in the sacrifices needed to preserve water supplies throughout California. In exchange, the Delta farmers likely avoided a curtailment notice from the Board.

And, with California's largest remain wild salmon run, the Klamath-Trinity chinook salmon, teetering on the brink largely due to out-of-basin water transfers to California Central Valley and Southern Oregon irrigated agribusiness, Humboldt County formally requests that 50,000 acre feet of water be released into the Trinity River this year to fulfill a a 60-year-old water rights agreement that the US Bureau of Reclamation has ignored heretofore. The release of the cold water downstream of Trinity Reservoir helps stave off the spread of a deadly parasite that killed approximately 70,000 salmon in the Lower Klamath in 2002.

June: The California Department of Water Resources completes a 750-foot rockwall dam in the San Francisco Bay-Delta known as the False River Barrier, which creates a barrier between the San Francisco Bay’s tidal saltwater and freshwater entering the delta from the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers. The barrier ensures the quality of water being exported to southern water rights holders, particularly San Joaquin Valley agribusinesses. Environmentalists lambaste the new dam (which state agencies claim is temporary and will be removed in November) because it partitions the delta, thereby reducing the availability of habitat for endangered fish at a time when they’ve already been pushed to the brink.

Meanwhile, though California's water supply depends on healthy, intact forests to ensure streamflow and water health, logging operations continue unabated despite the drought (including those of Mendocino Redwood Company, which draws opposition from locals for its “Hack and Squirt” practice). In one of the biggest regional battles between environmentalists and the timber industry, the multi-state logging corporation Redwood Empire (owner of the conspicuous Cloverdale redwood mill) completes escrow on 29,500 acres of predominantly redwood timberland in Sonoma and Mendocino counties.

Soon after, the company rolls out its first logging plans, which would involve logging of hundreds of large second-growth redwoods in the Gualala's sensitive floodplain, which comprise the watershed's last mature riparian forest. “Nothing else impacts salmon like this does,” ecologist Peter Baye notes. The plan appears on the verge of approval until Cal Fire “re-circulates” it for public comment under pressure from environmentalists.

But Sierra Pacific Industries' intensive logging of the mixed-conifer montane forests of the Sierra Nevada, Siskiyou, and Cascade ranges, not to mention the Trinity Alps is the largest-scale problem. SPI's clear-cut logging is happening “on a scale that makes Charles Hurwitz look like a novice,” to quote Doug Bevington of Environment Now (Charles Hurwitz is the infamous owner of MAXXAM, which hacked down Humboldt County redwood forests on an unprecedented scale from 1986 to 2008). According to reviews of Cal Fire records, SPI clear-cut 350,000 acres in California from 1998 to 2013 -- far more land than MAXXAM ever owned.

July: Roughly 1,000 rural Sonoma County residents overflowed classrooms and small meeting chambers at five informational sessions convened by the State Water Resources Control Board, most of them to decry the Water Board's Russian River Tributaries Emergency Regulation on the grounds that it is does not ask for any cut-backs by the wine industry: the main contemporary cause of many of these watersheds' decline.

At the end of the month, I publish an AVA story called “Wine Industry Water Grab?” that reports on a Sonoma County winegrower's bid to create a new independent special district called the Russian River Irrigation District, which first began to take shape in February. My piece says the district “would be operated of, by, and for the growers and their affiliated wineries, tasting rooms, and event centers.” The district would encompass much of the Russian River watershed in northern Sonoma County.

The legislation specifically names its purview as being the Alexander Valley, Knights Valley, Dry Creek Valley, and “the territory within the portion of the Russian River Valley American Viticultural Area” and “the portion of the Russian River Valley American Viticultural Area south of River Road and Mark West Creek Road.” The story is widely circulated in Sonoma County.

August: In its August 6th issue, The Santa Rosa Press Democrat reports on the grape grower-oriented irrigation district bill, quoting from my July 29th AVA story, including referring to the term “water grab” in its headline, but fails to acknowledge me or my story or even the AVA by name. The Rose City daily's report quotes several people who attempt to repudiate my story. A few weeks later, the Press Dem similarly non-persons a report by muckraking environmental journalist Dan Bacher on the oil industry's regulatory capture of California's regulatory apparatus in the context of the Refugio State Beach oil spill.

Meanwhile, Sonoma County Farm Bureau Water Committee Chairman Tito Sasaki publishes an article in the organization's newsletter nothing that “Sonoma County Farm Bureau last year started advocating the creation of irrigation districts or agricultural water districts,” and that “work to create an irrigation district covering the Santa Rosa Plain is also under way with the help from the office of Sen. McGuire.”

September:. For the second summer in a row, environmentalists and fishermen say, an entire year class of the endangered winter-run Chinook has been mostly killed by elevated temperatures in the Sacramento River.

In response to an article I publish in the North Bay Bohemian called “Fish Out of Water,” which describes some historical context of Sonoma County residents' July outcry against the wine industry's destructive impact in the Russian River watershed, the executive director of the Fish Friendly Farming certification program, Laurel Marcus, responds on the North Bay Bohemian message board and says my writing is akin to “throwing bombs” at grape growers. I had devoted three paragraphs in the 4,000-word article to describing the Fish Friendly Farming program's work on behalf of wine grower interests, noting that eight of nine members of the organization's board of directors are grape growers and that its chairman is the North Coast vineyard manager of the world's largest wine corporation, Contellation Brands.

October: In a front-page Press Democrat story, “Sonoma County vineyard owners lauded for water conservation,” Chuck Bonham, director of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, tells a crowd of about 40 people gathered at the Kendall-Jackson Wine Estate & Gardens in Santa Rosa that their collective efforts to save fish in the four creeks subjet to the Water Board's emergency regulation have paid off, and that the fish would not die. “The event came as a counterpoint to widespread resentment from the belief that vineyard expansion is largely to blame for creeks going nearly dry,” the Press Democrat reported. Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore hails the voluntary conservation commitments, also telling the crowd that the “biggest challenge is not to buy into villainization.”

November: Gov. Jerry Brown continues his bid to build tunnels to isolate the San Francisco Bay Delta from its natural water supply, now repackaged as the “California Water Fix,” otherwise known as the Delta Twin Tunnels or Delta Drains. Meanwhile, the US Congress debates a “drought relief bill” that potentially includes hundreds of millions of dollars of funding for new dams, including four dam-expansion and construction projects that the state and federal governments have studied since 2004: Sites, Temperance Flat, Shasta, and Los Vaqueros . A study by the group Friends of the River concludes that the dam projects would cost $9 billion and add only one percent to California's water supply.

On the local front: Sonoma County Winegrowers President Karissa Kruse sends a letter to her winery and winegrower members suggested templates for them to send to the Board of Supervisors regarding new regulations on tasting rooms and wineries, as well as wine-themed event centers, restaurants, and hotels, which is widely shared by the Healdsburg Chamber of Commerce and the Sonoma County Tourist Bureau. It reads, in part: “The world has taken notice of Sonoma County’s leadership in sustainability yet we have had to endure disrespect and outright lies from our own neighbors as we build a sustainable future for Sonoma County... Me and my fellow grape growers are following a very stringent, time-consuming and costly effort to become certified sustainable by following some of the most respected and recognized programs in the world. But, our opponents never let these facts get in the way of their selfish effort to kill small businesses.”

December: Though the late-fall rains have brought a measure of relief, it has been a dismal year for California fisheries. All in all, though, it's been not such a bad time to be a farmer in California. The state's agriculture industry sold $54 billion worth of crops in 2014 — an all-time record, though that was partly due to inflated prices in foreign markets. The almond industry, increasingly a symbol of one arid region's dependence on water imported from wetter places, is also thriving. Since June 2014, California farmers have planted 12 million almond trees — resulting in 75,000 acres of new orchards, according to the US Department of Agriculture. Information concerning 2015 is pending.

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