The Trump administration is fulfilling a campaign promise to divert more water to farmers in California’s Central Valley over the objections of federal career scientists, who argue that the new rules, called “biological opinions,” will further endanger critical Chinook salmon populations and other fish in the Delta.
When the scientists at the National Marine Fisheries Service, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, disagreed with the new rules, the Trump administration replaced those biologists with a new team, who rewrote the decision, saying their new plan would “create a much smarter approach that focuses on real-time management,” according to Paul Souza, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Pacific Southwest regional director in an NPR article.
However, environmentalists disagree.
This decision affects all of us because the waterways of the San Joaquin/Sacramento valley provide drinking water for two-thirds of the states’ population, and for the vast tracts of farmland throughout the valley.
So just how much food is grown in the fertile soil and favorable climate of the Central Valley? Enough to export almonds, tomatoes, grapes and asparagus crops to the rest of the country.
Bolthouse Farms in Bakersfield processes six million pounds of carrots every single day, according to an article by Mark Bittman in the New York Times, which goes on to say that if you took a week’s worth of those carrots and “stacked each carrot from end to end, you could circle the earth.”
Growing crops at that scale, in a state that regularly experiences prolonged stretches of drought, leaves farmers constantly concerned about reliable water sources for their crops.
But more than farmers depend on that water.
For the last 50 years, the amount of water pumped and exported from the Delta has steadily increased, leaving the fish populations to endure living in shallower water. One side effect of less water is the harm that occurs to fragile fish eggs, which get too hot from the sun’s heat and die.
Another effect is from the pumps themselves, that are large and strong enough to actually reverse the flow of the Sacramento river. Although the pumps have mesh screens to prevent most fish from getting sucked into the pumps, fish still get caught in the screens, becoming an easy dinner for any predatory species nearby.
Both of these factors have drastically affected populations of the tiny Delta smelt, a silvery fish that used to roam our waterways in the millions but is now functionally extinct.
The Delta smelt is an indicator of the overall health of the valley ecosystem, like a canary in a coal mine.
Since each element in an ecosystem depends on the other elements to function and stay healthy and whole, the near-extinction of one species has a domino-like effect on the other species and the general ecological health of the water.
Along with the Delta smelt, Chinook salmon used to swarm the Delta waters annually in the hundreds of thousands to mate and lay eggs for future generations; now they number merely in the thousands.
Why is this important, if you’re not a smelt, or a salmon?
Because of the ripple effect, which will impact humans and non-humans.
Killer whale populations feast on the salmon, but their numbers have dropped dramatically, due to lower numbers of salmon.
An out-of-balance ecosystem becomes more vulnerable to other stressors, like the blue-green algae blooms we’ve already seen in the waterways in and around Stockton.
Not only does the smelly algae kill marine life, it can sicken and potentially kill any people and dogs who play or swim in the algae-polluted water.
Symptoms of exposure to the algae can run that gamut from “rashes and a runny nose to diarrhea, vomiting and liver damage,” according to the Stockton Record.
Farmers need their water and we need the food they grow; however, something clearly needs to be done to protect what’s left of the fish in the Delta and to protect our drinking water. And we shouldn’t have to dance with the prospect of danger every time we swim or play in water that might be festering with deadly algae.
There isn’t one single, viable solution to the Delta’s water woes. Many different groups have proposed fixes, and many of those groups — along a spectrum with strict environmentalists on one side to those with purely political motives on the other — disagree with each other on the viability of those solutions.
Maybe there isn’t a quick fix to save the fish and protect our drinking water, but we should all feel invested in finding a permanent solution, before it’s too late to fix it.