Editorials

Editorial: Salmon belong where they can thrive – not in San Joaquin River

Some of the 54,000 juvenile spring-run Chinook salmon get acclimated to their temporary home in pens in the San Joaquin River below Friant Dam last February. Because the river has barriers, such as dams and dry stretches, the pens were moved downstream to the confluence of the Merced River for release and migration to the ocean.
Some of the 54,000 juvenile spring-run Chinook salmon get acclimated to their temporary home in pens in the San Joaquin River below Friant Dam last February. Because the river has barriers, such as dams and dry stretches, the pens were moved downstream to the confluence of the Merced River for release and migration to the ocean. FRESNO BEE FILE PHOTO

Global warming is real. The Arctic is melting, and temperatures are rising. Last year was the hottest on record for our planet, and the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports that 2015 so far is even hotter.

Thus it behooves the United States and all of the world’s industrial powers to dramatically slash greenhouse gas emissions. The more quickly we move to renewable energy, the better it will be for Mother Earth and her people.

Much of the honest debate about global warming has focused on the costs and pace of switching from fossil fuels to renewables. The discussion, however, should widen to include examination of programs favored by environmentalists and governments to preserve species.

One example: the fate of the Chinook salmon in California.

Though considered a hardy fish by biologists, salmon in the Golden State have been decimated by the drought and hot temperatures. The Sacramento Bee reported Oct. 28 that for “the second straight year, huge numbers of juvenile winter-run Chinook salmon appear to have baked to death in the Sacramento River because of California’s drought-stretched water supplies, bringing the endangered species a step closer to extinction.”

This decimation has occurred despite the best efforts of federal officials to save salmon – and at the expense of irrigation water for farmers. Officials, in fact, sharply curtailed water flows out of Lake Shasta last spring in an attempt to keep sufficient cold water in the system to support the fish.

Granted, the drought has contributed mightily to the salmon kill. But the Sacramento is California’s biggest river. What if the “new normal” is higher temperatures and more frequent drought? If the Sacramento can’t sustain healthy salmon runs without crippling farmers, what are the prospects that the San Joaquin River – with less water and higher temperatures – can flow with spring-run salmon again?

Don’t misunderstand us. The San Joaquin – with its myriad dams, channels, pumps and levees – is one of the most fractured and desecrated rivers in the world. It was pillaged by the federal government to expand the Valley’s agriculture-based economy. The river deserves to be restored – for the good of residents and the environment.

But the herculean effort to get water flowing through dried-up sections of California’s second-longest river has been tied completely to bringing back salmon. That is a colossal mistake. The focus instead should be on the river’s overall health.

Since the restoration project began in 2009, it has been plagued by missed deadlines, a failure to fulfill coequal goals that include returning restoration water to farmers and a price tag that has ballooned to $1.5 billion. Not that we believe for even a second that $1.5 billion will result in a viable salmon run on the San Joaquin.

If we are going to save the salmon in California, taxpayers’ resources must be directed to those waters where the fish has the best chance to thrive. Environmentalists should recognize that failure to support such thinking will result in the salmon’s demise.

Before Friant Dam was built north of Fresno in the 1940s, the San Joaquin was home to North America’s southern-most salmon run. If it isn’t already a warm-water fishery, it will be soon. In the midst of global warming, trying to expand the range of salmon – instead of saving them where they are – is a fool’s errand.

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