Monday, October 5, 2009

A river may once again run through it...


This past week has been a remarkable, mixed, week for the environment in the San Joaquin valley! First the good news: water began to flow through the San Joaquin river's heavily impacted (dammed / modified / channeled / dredged / damaged) course as part of a major restoration effort decades in the making, when federal authorities released water from Friant Dam, just above Fresno. The Fresno Bee has been covering the story really well these past few days, with a special feature, and you can jump into the stream with this report from Friday:

FRESNO, Calif. -- When Darrell Imperatrice was a boy, California's San Joaquin River teemed with so many king salmon his father could catch 40-pound fish using only a pitchfork.

Then the salmon vanished from the icy river for nearly 60 years, after a colossal federal dam built to nurture the croplands below dried up their habitat.

Now, as federal officials try to bring the fish back through a sweeping restoration program of the state's second-largest river - opening the valves for the first full day on Friday - those who know it best are debating its value and its virtue.

"There were so many salmon back then, you could fish any way you wanted, even dynamite. But when they built that dam, thousands of fish lay dead on the banks," said Imperatrice, who at age 82 still treasures his father's fishing gear. "There's no real restoration that will bring back the river I knew."

Yes, we are unlikely to ever really bring back the river from before agriculture took over this valley. But we sure can try, and this week we took a major step forward on that long arduous journey towards bringing the old salmon runs back to this damaged/heavily used river. Its an ambitious project that has (supposedly) pitted environmentalists against farmers (at least in the popular caricature, although there are farmers who are environmentalists too!) in many a legal and legislative battle over several decades - and that was before the water started flowing again! Let's see how far we can take this.

Which brings us to the week's bad news: even as the water started flowing down the river, a judge in Fresno reminded us that the battle to restore the river is far from over, when he decided that the government hadn't done enough to justify diverting water away from farmland for the sake of the endangered Delta Smelt - a tiny fish from the San Joaquin Delta that has become a symbol of the fight between "environmentalists" vs. "farmers". In hearing an appeal from some farmers against govt. rules favoring the Smelt under the Endangered Species Act, the judge didn't really raise any serious objections to the fish being listed under the ESA in the first place. Rather, he objects, oddly enough, to a lack of an environmental impact study... on humans!! You read that right - the judge wants the federal govt. to present a study of the environmental impact of saving the Delta Smelt on humans!! Talk about turning the ESA on its head! He apparently thinks that the current rules issued by the govt for water management in the delta are already causing the human environment to deteriorate: our air is fouled by dust from farms that haven't received water in the west valley, and land itself is sinking in some places due to increased groundwater pumping! As if over-irrigating and farming in arid landscapes, and careless use of underground aquifers, don't have anything to do with those environmental impacts! Those are not problems in this Cadillac Desert - but attempts to restore the natural environment for some endangered native species is what we have to worry about, because, darn it, it raises dust into our skies, and forces us to suck so much water from underground that our lands start sinking!!

And you wonder why us environmentalists always have that sinking feeling...



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