As Monterey County’s own water troubles persist, the Bay Delta’s water battle also rages on – with a species and a local industry that depends on it hanging in the balance.
California is currently experiencing one of the most successful commercial salmon seasons in over a decade thanks to conservation efforts that put a stop to heavy pumping of the Sacramento River over the past three years.
But the California Chinook salmon population may be more vulnerable than ever despite a plan to restore a vital habitat.
The Bay Delta Conservation Plan is a long-term conservation strategy prepared by a group of water agencies, environmental and conservation organizations in conjunction with state and federal agencies aimed at restoring the once-great wetland, with a price tag of just over $14 billion.
Now scientists, fishermen, conservationists and Delta farmers are questioning why – after successful measures revived the ailing fall-run salmon population – a plan to revive the Delta’s fragile wetlands includes a massive pump-and-ship project benefiting agriculture in the West Central Valley.
Monterey charter boats have been booked up to a week in advance as a result of this year’s salmon boom, with limits of fish being the norm. Commercial fishing operations have been bringing so much salmon to dock that prices recently dropped from $20 per pound to below $13 at some local markets.
Golden Gate Salmon Association President Victor Gonella says despite outcry from the National Academy of Sciences condemning the BDCP, the project continues to move forward.
Gonella stresses that increased pumping won’t just affect the fish or the fishermen, believing the heritage, culture and economy of many fishing towns, including Monterey, will also be threatened. “Biological opinions are under attack every single day, and if those are reversed I’m afraid of closed seasons in perpetuity,” he says.
In response to the BDCP, 12 members of Congress from Northern California wrote a letter to U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Ken Salazar June 22, asking why a potentially damaging conveyance canal was being included in the plan while sustainable water solutions were left out.
Zeke Grader, Executive Director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Association says he can sympathize with farmers and their need for water, but that there are better ways for Central Valley farmers and Southern California developers to secure the resource.
“The problem with the canal plan is it assumes that we can take large amounts of fresh water out of this estuary and not harm the ecosystem at all and that is just a false premise,” Grader says. “The salmon are doing fine because we used the Endangered Species Act to curtail overpumping.”
Larry Collins, president of the Crab Boat Owners Association in San Francisco, isn’t as sympathetic to Central Valley agribusiness. Having fished for salmon commercially in California for over 30 years, Collins has seen countless water grabs threaten his industry and livelihood, including a peripheral canal project much like the BDCP conveyance that was struck down in 1982.
“[Central Valley farmers] want to grow almonds to export in the desert and they don’t care what the cost is to the fish or the fisherman or the environment,” Collins says.