What should be the “baseline” year for the California environment? What year should we pick as representing the ideal environment that will satisfy activists wishing to impose their vision for allocating our water distribution between fish, farmers and home use?
Should we select the California that existed before 1769 when Spanish missionaries settled here? Or should we choose 1848 before gold miners destroyed ancient fish-spawning beds? Or how about 1879 before live striped bass fish were shipped in a rail car from New Jersey and dumped into the San Joaquin Delta without regard for the impact on native species like smelt or migrating salmon? Other bass species were soon introduced and 133 years later, the California Fish and Game Commission protected them by declaring all to be native species.
Perhaps our baseline year could be 1923, before San Francisco dammed a valley inside Yosemite National Park and built a pipeline that diverts billions of gallons from the Tuolumne River before it flows toward the San Joaquin Delta. Or we could consider 1935, when authorities banned the commercial gill netting of striped bass in the delta and declared them to be a sports fish. Obviously big fish eat little fish — including smelt and tiny migrating salmon.
Some believe we should save the endangered smelt by simply restoring the environment that existed before 1973,when pumps began pulling water from the delta into the new California Aqueduct. That canal expanded agricultural production and supplies Los Angeles — a city in a desert.
For centuries, mankind has prospered by bending the flow of water. The remarkable aqueducts built by the Romans enabled the development of one of history’s great civilizations. It is foolish to now deprive the Central California civilization of the water that feeds the most productive agricultural soil in the world. It is the equivalent of Roman citizens choosing to destroy their city by closing their life-sustaining aqueducts.
Bay Area environmentalists apparently want to eliminate every dam but the one they own in Yosemite National Park. Until then, they demand our existing dams release water to save smelt and a salmon migration that could not otherwise exist. The natural flow of the Merced River from Yosemite this year would not have sustained a fish population without a forced release of supplemental water from the foothill dams that were built and paid for by farmers a century ago.
Tank trucks are even being used to deliver young salmon from Fresno's San Joaquin River to the delta. However, federal fish biologists stated “the bass have just hammered the salmon” — the upstream baby fish they expected to trap for transport and estimated perhaps one out of a thousand of the ones they release will survive. Research shows mature salmon rarely eat anything - including smelt - when they return from the ocean focused only on spawning before they die.
Personally, I love to fish and have used smelt sized anchovies as bait to catch huge Striped Bass that were artificially introduced into Utah’s Lake Powell by federal authorities in 1963. The lake, with 1,800 miles of shoreline was formed by damming the Colorado River on the Utah and Arizona border. Bass soon ate most of the smaller native fish so federal biologists then planted other hardier, but non-native species, to feed them. If only California could employ a similar solution.
Perhaps we simply need to declare 2015 as our baseline year for California‘s environment. Our well intended ancestors introduced fish and built dams and waterways that were critical to the growth of the great state that we inherited. Isn’t it time to appreciate and benefit from their foresight rather than to try to restore some gauzy romantic idea of a lost California Garden of Eden?
Furthermore, if a warming climate means there will be smaller future snow packs to supply our summer needs, it is incumbent on us to build surface storage - dams - to capture what water we can. They will provide future generations with non polluting hydroelectric power, act as recharge basins for underground aquifers and make water available for seasonal release on the same schedule that we —and fish — have historically expected from melting snow.
Jerrold H. Jensen resides in Visalia.