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California’s water wars pit farmers against local fishermen

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A haul of fresh fish are put on ice before they’re weighed on the docks of Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco on July 11, 2017. (Mira Laing/Special to S.F. Examiner)
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Business was good when Larry Collins began his career as a fisherman in 1983. During salmon season, which stretched from April until September, roughly 5,000 boats in California reeled in multiple 100-fish days. Collins and his wife were able to buy a house and raise their kids in San Francisco.

Today, business is an upstream battle. This year’s salmon season is terrible, starting more than three months late and yielding small catches — sometimes only five fish a day. Fishermen struggle to make ends meet and, like many, can’t afford to buy million-dollar homes in The City. Meanwhile, San Franciscans must fork over more than $30 per pound for wild, King salmon.

While the historic drought is certainly to blame for the bad season, so is the battle between California’s farming and fishing industries.

“We’ve lost over 90 percent of this fleet because of inequitable water distribution,” Collins told me. “The politicians are so much more in the pocket of farmers. The fishing fleet is not quite the millionaires.”

In July, wealthy and powerful Central Valley agribusinesses celebrated two political victories. For years, they have mischaracterized salmon protections as attempt by big government to prioritize fish over people. They brush away the truth that slogans like “food grows where water flows” should also apply to seafood. To them, values like states’ rights, jobs for all and strong small businesses are easily swept away for the promise of one more drop of water.

Catering to their demands, House Republicans pledged farmers more water this summer by passing a bill that unconstitutionally undermines state law and eliminates endangered salmon protections. Led by Representative David Valadao, R-Hanford,, H.R. 23 would decimate ecosystems and California businesses. Gov. Jerry Brown and senators Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris oppose H.R. 23, making it unlikely to pass the Senate. But salmon and fishermen aren’t safe.

“There’s a risk radicals in the House may put provisions into must-pass legislation, like the debt-ceiling bill,” Doug Obegi, an attorney with environmental nonprofit the Natural Resources Defense Council, told me. “It’s audacious. The party of states’ rights is now demanding the federal government preempt state law to benefit large scale agribusinesses.”

But California agencies also caved to agribusinesses’ demands this summer. Fishermen, conservation groups and Native Americans had to file suit to stop the state from diverting a massive amount of Sacramento River water — enough to flood Rhode Island under 7-feet — to Central and Southern California. To move the multi-billion-dollar “California WaterFix Project” forward, the state promised sufficient deliveries to the farmer-controlled Westlands Water District. While officials also promised to operate the project responsibly, its very nature threatens the imperiled Delta ecosystem.

Thankfully, salmon have some determined advocates on their side. But California’s water wars will endure as long as Central Valley agribusinesses keep attacking their fellow farmers of the sea.
“It’s not people versus fish; it’s his job against my job,” Collins told me. “If he takes all the water, he’ll get to work and I won’t.”

To protect all Californians’ jobs, lawmakers must think beyond re-distributing water toward measures like water recycling and better soil and forest management. Many California farmers and ranchers are already conserving water and boosting productivity by composting, rotating and covering crops and restoring riparian areas. Governments could make these practices more affordable instead of funneling billions to diversion projects.

Collins would like to see San Franciscans — and all Californians — who enjoy eating wild salmon pressure lawmakers to make these changes. While he anticipates fighting for fish and fishermen the rest of his life, Collins has faith the tides will turn. His hope was shared by others gathered at Fisherman’s Wharf to celebrate the start of salmon season on July 31.

“I get hope for the planet among all this doom and gloom,” local fisherman Barry Day told the crowd. “Let’s not blow that hope. Save these salmon and come eat them when I catch them.”

Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time. Check her out at robynpurchia.com.

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