March 8, 2014

EDITORIAL: A second look at restoration

Eric Holthaus, a meteorologist who writes about weather and climate for the website Slate, had this to say about the California drought on Friday:

"The present-day Southwest was born from a pendulum swing in climatic fortunes that has no equal in U.S. history. Research at the University of California, Berkeley shows that the 20th century was an abnormally wet era in the West and that a new mega-drought may be starting. With the added pressure of climate change, there's simply no way to count on continued supplies of water at current usage rates."

With this in mind, we add what U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein said last month in an telephone interview with the Editorial Board. In that conversion, Feinstein called for a balanced approach to California's water problems that included more storage -- above and under ground -- improved conveyance, groundwater cleanup and increased conservation.

She also urged passage of a water bond by California voters this November. A bond with the best prospects for passage, she said, shouldn't eclipse $10 billion but should include a variety of mechanisms to satisfy municipal, agricultural and business demands for water.

Then, in response to a question about the feasibility of San Joaquin River restoration, Feinstein broke new ground. Restoration efforts, she said, "have been more difficult and more expensive" than were originally forecast.

It is time, in light of climate change, Feinstein said, to "reassess" the $2 billion plan that would revive salmon runs on the San Joaquin by rebuilding the 153-mile stretch between Friant Dam and where the Merced River empties into the San Joaquin.

This is significant because Feinstein has been a strong river restoration advocate. She, along with former Rep. George Radanovich, was a key figure in pushing negotiators forward in the 2006 settlement of a long and bitter federal lawsuit filed by environmentalist over river diversions to farmers.

The Editorial Board has championed the river's restoration. However, we concur with Feinstein.

The project has ballooned in costs. Deadlines have been repeatedly missed on this massive, unprecedented and unpredictable project. Indeed, the schedule for fully restoring the salmon runs was pushed back three years in mid-2012.

We aren't saying that restoration should end. A healthy San Joaquin flowing in a natural channel from Friant to the Pacific Ocean could help the West Coast salmon fishery and elevate our quality of life.

In addition, a 2012 UC Merced study said that reviving the river would create 11,000 Valley jobs -- mostly temporary in construction, but it would also add 475 permanent jobs related to recreation.

Still, there isn't a scientific consensus on how large the salmon runs might be. And it's not clear whether restoration would result in a net gain -- or loss -- in jobs after figuring in the impacts of lost irrigation water to east-side Valley agriculture and related industries.

But clearly, with the possibility of a long-term drought ahead and so many questions unanswered, it's worth taking a second look at today's restoration plan and weighing alternatives.

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