By Peter Jamison
I recently observed that San Francisco salmon fishermen, despite some relatively good news in an industry that of late has lumbered from one calamity to the next, are still pretty glum these days. That’s because a number of highly publicized federal initiatives to protect the rivers where salmon spawn — the most prominent is an “agreement in principle” among state and federal officials and the electric utility PacifiCorp to remove four hydropower dams from the ailing Klamath River — are small-bore fixes for a crushing problem. The Klamath dams, for example, would not be removed for 12 years; meanwhile, California’s commercial salmon fishermen, who depend on fish born in the Sacramento and Klamath Rivers for their livelihood, are looking at a cancellation of their season for the second year in a row.
Now the good news, such as it was, is over. A report issued yesterday by the conservation group California Trout predicts that 65 percent of native salmon, steelhead and trout species will be extinct within the next century. The report, authored by UC Davis professor Peter Moyle, lays the blame for declining fish populations on the usual suspects — dam construction, overruse of water by farmers and development prominent among them. No Californian who reads the news is unaware of the serious problems facing the state’s commercial salmon fishery, but the “E”-word, particularly when applied to a creature so emblematic of the state and its fishermen as the wild salmon, is enough to make most of us swallow hard. “Our opinion would certainly be that all of the restoration projects that have been proposed should be accelerated,” said California Trout Executive Director Brian Stranko.
Todd Steiner, director of the Marin County-based Salmon Protection and Watershed Network, agreed that the takeaway from Moyle’s report is that government officials and organizations need to speed up their efforts to restore California’s rivers to salmon-friendly states. “There’s no question that this report reemphasizes the fact that we need more action, more quickly, if we’re going to save these endangered species,” Steiner said. “We get a lot of bureaucratic noise, but not much action.”
So what happens next? The California Trout report recommends a number of initiatives, from increasing the flow of the state’s rivers — cold, deep water is ideal for salmon; when rivers are dammed or diverted for agricultural use they become shallow and warm, leading to disease and death, particularly for young fish — to improving land-use regulations governing streamside development. “A lot of it needs to be done at the local level,” Steiner said, suggesting that even action at the municipal and county levels could make a difference.
These solutions aren’t easy. The woes of the salmon fishery are so intractable because they are bound up in a political conflict that emerged before the West was won — the war over water rights. Even the disastrous diversion of water from the Klamath River in 2002, which was driven by partisan politics and resulted in the largest fish-kill in West Coast history, isn’t hard to justify from the standpoint of farmers in the Klamath basin, whose fields would otherwise have been left parched. Arguments can also be made that water is needed to fuel development in the housing industry, which its attendant benefits for the state’s economy.
Ironically, one of the easier-to-agree-upon fixes — removal of dams with well-documented histories of environmental degradation — is one of the hardest to make happen. The economic might and political clout of utilities such as PacifiCorp, combined with the glacial pace of the federal and state bureaucracies that negotiate with them, make for a gradual restoration process that may yield results only after the West Coast’s commercial salmon fishery is past saving. Oddly enough, Stranko didn’t seem terribly concerned about the pace of the Klamath dam-removal project when he spoke with SF Weekly. “We wouldn’t want to accelerate it and see it fall apart,” he said. Fair enough. Let’s see what falls apart first.