Dry conditions are bad for farmers, but the publicity disaster might be even worse.
San Joaquin Valley irrigators feel so squeezed by severe federal water cutbacks that they’re asking the federal courts to stop releases of extra water from Trinity Lake that aim to keep the lower Klamath River cool, flush out a fish-killing microbe, and ensure decent conditions for a bumper crop of chinook salmon.
The extra releases, which the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced last week, begin today, but Westlands Water District and the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority are seeking an injunction. The lawyers argue that the likely impacts of releasing the water downstream instead of hoarding it in the reservoir are much larger than Reclamation acknowledges and need deeper study, and that the whole process doesn’t follow the Endangered Species Act.
The bottom line is simple, though: The farmers think they need the water more than the fish do. From their perspective, it’s understandable. It’s precisely in times of scarcity that users fight most urgently for every drop of water.
But in the long run, the worst thing that could happen to these big Central Valley Project contractors is for them to win.
Suppose they convince a judge of legal flaws in Reclamation’s decision. Suppose the judge orders an emergency halt to the water surge. Suppose more than 100,000 king salmon wash up dead on the shores of the Klamath — of a disease the dam operators had a plan to prevent, a plan stopped by Big Corporate Ag’s lawyers.
How’ll that look in the East Coast papers? How’ll that help farmers’ plea for relief from a “Congress Created Dust Bowl”? How’ll that win the trust of Northern Californians fearful that the “twin tunnels” through the Delta will suck rivers dry with no regard for the consequences?
We’re talking hypotheticals, of course. Maybe everything would work out just fine.
But the fact is Reclamation over the past decade has periodically released these extra slugs of Trinity water downstream in comparable conditions, and in each year they’ve worked — avoiding a fish kill like the nationally notorious disaster of 2002. And if “area of origin” rights mean anything, it’s that the Trinity’s water should be used first for the Trinity’s needs — not those 300 miles south.
Reclamation’s doing the right thing in leaving enough water in the river for fish to thrive, despite the real costs. The Westlands lawsuit just confirms that down-state irrigators’ thirst, in a pinch, will be slaked at the North State’s expense. And if the suit succeeds and the fish suffer as the worst-case scenarios predict, a few thousand extra acre-feet of Trinity Water won’t be nearly enough to wash the stink of dead fish off the irrigators’ reputation.