California water: The only real mistake is forgetting the past

Docks in the delta near Stockton at sunset. (Photo: Timmy M, via Shutterstock)

Henry Ford said, “Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.” Rules enacted a decade ago that were intended to protect California’s iconic salmon and Delta smelt populations aren’t working and federal agencies are now in the process of modernizing them, this time using much better science.

This is positive for California because it allows us to examine what has and has not worked in the past and make changes for the better. The goal is to improve the job of serving California’s water users, including people, farms and the environment.

Habitat, food sources, predators, and more play significant roles in the life cycle of fish.

The first step in this process is what is known as a biological assessment which was issued by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation at the end of January.

In simple terms, a biological assessment evaluates possible effects that actions may have on species and habitat protected by the Endangered Species Act. This step is crucial because it is where we evaluate past successes and failures, consider scientific advances and use them as building blocks for new rules.

And make no mistake about it, we’ve learned a lot since the last review.

In the case of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, it’s clear that the existing policies haven’t worked.The health of the estuary continues to decline as have the salmon and Delta smelt we’re trying to protect.

For decades, the approach has been to focus on one issue at a time, one species at a time. That’s like expecting a car to run once the flat tire is fixed even though the vehicle has no gas and no starter. It simply doesn’t work; a car, and an ecosystem, must function as a whole.

On the positive side, we now have a clear view of what success looks like. Utilizing more up-to-date science, projects have been launched that take a more holistic approach to solving problems in the estuary.

What scientists found is not surprising. Fish need more than water to survive and thrive. Habitat, food sources, predators, and more play significant roles in the life cycle of fish.

An early success story is the Butte Creek Salmon Recovery Project, which has broad support from urban and rural water agencies, farmers, conservation groups and state and federal agencies. Thanks to this project more than 10,000 spring-run salmon return on average to Butte Creek each year, up from fewer than 100 in some years as recent as the mid-1990s.

Another of many projects examines what happens when Sacramento Valley farmers flood rice fields in the fall. It helps attract and feed birds on the Pacific flyway.

New research indicates that water borrowed from the river in winter can be returned, carrying with it a bounty of bugs and plankton that help feed young fish. Jacob Katz, a scientist with CalTrout says, “This project is showing that there are ways to upgrade California’s water systems and operations that work for both fish and farms.”

This assessment process is worth getting right and that’s why it takes so much time. The review that led to the new biological assessments began in 2016 under the Obama administration and staff at the Bureau of Reclamation have been working tirelessly to finalize the assessment so that new, more effective water management rules can begin later this year.

Now is the time to put what we’ve learned into action. To do anything less is to remain mired in the mistakes of the past, robbing the future of a more vibrant ecosystem for critters and reliable water supplies for people.

Editor’s Note: Mike Wade is the executive director of the California Farm Water Coalition.





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