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Column: Newsom cares more about almond growers than California’s salmon fishery

Gov. Gavin Newsom bills himself as a protector of wildlife, so you wouldn’t think he’d take water from baby salmon and feed it to almonds.

Or pistachios, or cotton, or alfalfa.

Especially when California was just drenched in its wettest three-week streak of storms on record and headed for another powerful snow and rain shower.

But Newsom and his water officials still claim we’re dealing with a drought – apparently it’s a never-ending drought. So last week they used that as a reason to drastically reduce the river flows needed by migrating small salmon in case the water is needed to irrigate crops in San Joaquin Valley in the summer.

Still calling our wet weather a drought is an embarrassing twist of a word – a propaganda tool to convince people to keep saving water. People should, but they don’t need to be addressed as if they were children.

What Newsom and government officials are really talking about is a long-term water shortage. It is caused by California having more agriculture and people than can be sustained with what nature provides us. And it becomes even more problematic with the uncertain outlook of climate change.

But a water shortage does not necessarily mean drought. It means we’re not adequately recycling, conserving and recharging aquifers – and not judiciously allocating what we have.

Agriculture uses 80% of developed water in California. The rest is allocated to domestic use – business and residential.

Calculated differently: 40% of all water – developed or not – ends up in agriculture and 10% goes to domestic use. The other 50% ends up directly in the environment — flowing downstream, watering what’s left of our wetlands and flowing into the ocean. And on their way to the ocean, river currents carry baby salmon out to sea, where they grow up.

The Sacramento River is the second largest producer of salmon on the West Coast, behind only the Columbia.

But salmon numbers in the Sacramento have plummeted in recent decades, largely due to dams blocking historic spawning areas and the diversion of water to farms and cities.

Plumbing in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta is also ruining the salmon. Giant pumps that send the water south via aqueducts mutilate the critters or pull them into the clutches of lurking predators.

There are four salmon spawning areas each year along the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers. By far the largest is located in Sacramento. The main one is in the fall. Fewer than 62,000 fish returned to spawn last fall, the second lowest number in 70 years. The fall before that there were almost 132,000.

These are sharp decreases from 448,000 in 2013 and 873,000 in 2002.

Meanwhile, almonds – one of our thirstiest crops – are on the rise. We’re worth up to 1.6 million acres, mostly in the San Joaquin Valley. California produces 80% of the world’s almonds. About two-thirds are exported.

“Salmon numbers have dropped significantly each year in Newsom — a third since he became governor,” said Barry Nelson, a longtime water consultant and environmentalist.

But should Newsom be blamed for that? We really had to deal with drought.

“Absolutely,” says Nelson. “Without a doubt, the governor is responsible. He waives standards intended to protect salmon. The state’s failure to protect salmon has turned bad news into disaster.”

“In the same four years that the salmon crashed,” Nelson adds, “the almond area has increased by 320,000 hectares.”

Newsom on February 13 signed an executive order allowing the salmon protection to be suspended. It was as if we were still suffering from drought and every drop of water was needed for people and food production.

“To protect public health and safety, it is critical that the state takes certain immediate measures without undue delay to prepare for and mitigate the effects of the drought,” the governor stated in his order.

The State Water Resources Control Board, which appoints the governor, dutifully obliged, waiving a requirement for flows through the mouth of the delta that salmon require at this time of year to push them into the ocean.

The suspension effectively cut flows in half until at least the end of March. The water will be stored in reservoirs.

But the large reservoirs were already filled again by the storms in January. And the Sierra snowpack was deep – at 173% of normal for last week.

“It’s not even a drought. If we can’t provide good conditions for fish in a year like this, then as resource managers we’re going bankrupt,” said Gary Bobker, program director at the Bay Institute, an environmental organization focused on the San Francisco Bay.

Young salmon — about 4 inches long — need strong river currents to carry them through the delta, into San Francisco Bay and out of the Golden Gate.

“They’re bad swimmers,” said John McManus, president of the Golden State Salmon Assn. “They evolved to be washed away by rivers in the spring, as nature would. But that has been turned on its head. Now the water is released for agriculture in the summer.”

That is because agriculture has more political influence.

McManus says the governor “is not answering our calls or responding to our emails.”

“The biggest problem for salmon in California is the lack of spring streams in rivers,” said McManus.

Maybe 1% will make it to the ocean.

Eric Oppenheimer, deputy director of the water board, told me, “We’re not saying (the flow reduction) won’t have an effect” on fish. “We’re just saying we don’t think the change will have an unreasonable impact.”

The state Department of Fish and Wildlife agrees in principle.

“Right now we’re still in a drought,” Oppenheimer said. “We are sometimes in drought and flood at the same time.”

That doesn’t seem logical to me.

Nor is cutting back on water for struggling baby salmon when it rains.