Farmers Pitted Against Fishermen in House

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‘     (CN) — The plan to buoy historically low salmon populations imperiled by California”s historic drought made for a contentious hearing Tuesday on Capitol Hill. House Republicans accused federal agencies of depriving farmers of water while the Golden State”s reservoirs sit full.
     The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Maine Fisheries Service teamed up for the drought proposal debated at this morning”s hearing of the House Subcommittee on Water, Power and Oceans.
     Though recent El Nino storms have left the state”s largest reservoirs full, the contentious plan calls for less water to be pulled from California”s largest reservoir, Shasta Lake, to preserve cold-water supplies needed to keep the Sacramento River at or below 56 degrees this fall.
     Warm water in the Sacramento River has contributed to devastatingly high mortality rates of juvenile winter run Chinook salmon over the last several years, but the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has complained that the plan could block federally contracted water deliveries without much warning.
     Jeff Sutton, manager of the Tehama-Colusa Canal Authority in Northern California, told Congress the move would cripple harvests.
     This year”s wet winter encouraged the planting of additional crops, Sutton said, with farmers expecting to receive their full-contracted water allotments for the first time in several years.
     “The lack of certainty after your planting date, after you”ve been awarded [the water], and the circumstances that would have befallen our farmers were an absolute tragedy,” Sutton testified.
     Rep. John Fleming, a Louisiana Republican who chairs the subcommittee, called California”s incessant debate over water rights and deliveries a “case study of federal unaccountability and confusion.”
     “We need real science, not political science,” Fleming said, suggesting that the relationship of the agencies behind the plan needs reconfiguration.
     The water-conservation plan came on the heels of criticism the bureau faced for failing to manage the Sacramento River”s temperature.
     Last year, water temperatures exceeded 56 degrees more than 1,500 times. Just 3 percent of the juvenile winter-run Chinook survived.
     Scientists warn that another year of catastrophic salmon die-offs could wipe out the historic river”s salmon run, but critics of the plan say there is no guarantee that the salmon population will recover.
     “It doesn”t make sense to me to be spending literally billions of dollars and not even checking to see if there are any good results,” Fleming said of the water fix.
     Democrats meanwhile saw the hearing as unnecessary platform for climate-change skeptics.
     Rep. Jared Huffman, D-California, blasted Republicans for asserting that the drought plan wasn”t based on science and that it”s unnecessary to keep the fish alive.
     “They keep making the same old claims that have been refuted and debunked time and again,” Huffman said. “One of them is that these biological opinions and the flow parameters that are driven by them are somehow not based on science.”
     Rep. Doug LaMalfa accused the various fish agencies of using inaccurate survey methods. A California Republican who helped arrange the oversight hearing, LaMalfa said it is impossible to tell if the proposal was even working in the first place.
     “We don”t even have a real sample, do we?” LaMalfa asked Sutton, the water supply manager.
     Huffman said the “farce” of a hearing was “wasting taxpayer dollars.”
     He brought up Donald Trump”s recent claims that California isn”t actually in a drought and that there is plenty of water to go around.
     “His statement on California”s drought was rightfully mocked by experts,” Huffman said. “Apparently that fact-checking did not sink in here in this Congress.”
     Huffman emphasized that fishermen are as much a victim to California”s drought as residential water users and farmers.
     Commercial fisherman Bob Borck said coastal towns such as Eureka and Santa Cruz have had their salmon-fishing industries destroyed by the dwindling Chinook populations. The Sacramento River salmon runs are one of the largest on the West Coast, he said, predicting that continued die-offs would shatter California, Oregon and Washington”s commercial-fishing industry.
     “The problem is freshwater in inland watersheds,” Borck testified. “If you don”t have enough freshwater for spawners to go up, and you don”t have enough freshwater for smolts to survive to get out, you lose your fishery. And that”s what we”ve had with the drought.”
     The Sacramento River is the state”s longest and most important river for its crucial role in supplying water to the state”s maze of reservoirs and canals. Juvenile salmon also need the river to reach the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, ending up in the San Francisco Bay.
     Scientists attribute the salmon population”s recent demise to a lack of cold water running through the river system and unhealthy salinity levels in the delta. They say the fall-freshwater releases not only cool the river for salmon, but help washout pollutants in the delta.
     Following pressure from Congress and Central Valley farmers, the bureau announced last month that it would attempt to operate a Shasta Lake plan without cutting back water deliveries.
     If water temperatures in Shasta Lake become too warm, however, federal officials have the ability to reduce deliveries in order to make sure there is enough cold water to cool the Sacramento River.
     Meanwhile, California and federal agencies announced a program Tuesday to improve conditions for the endangered Delta smelt. The program will boost production of zooplankton that the smelt feed on as well as remove invasive aquatic weeds in the delta. ‘