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Deceptive arguments are being made in California's water wars

March 14, 2010|Michael Hiltzik

Mendota's annual unemployment rate has dipped below 25% only twice in the last 10 years, according to state statistics; in 2003, when the federal deliveries were better than 75% of contract supply, Mendota unemployment still approached 32%.

What about the claim that state and federal officials are diverting into the ocean billions of gallons of water the farmers desperately need, just to save a 2-inch fish?

This is perhaps the most deceptive argument made in the water wars. The truth is that the devastation that dams and wasteful agricultural policies have wreaked in the Sacramento delta ecosystem has produced an economic holocaust all its own, just conveniently out of sight of the valley farmers and their mouthpieces.

For one thing, it has destroyed a salmon fishery once worth billions of dollars and cost as many as 23,000 jobs. Commercial salmon fishing on the California coast has been barred for the last three years because of the collapse of the chinook salmon population -- caused in large part by the degradation of the delta -- and may be shut down again this year. A preliminary decision is imminent, with a final ruling due next month.

"Unemployment among salmon fishermen is 100%," Larry Collins, a salmon man himself and vice president of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Assns., told me. "In 25 years we've gone from a fleet of 5,000 boats to maybe 400. You stand on the docks in San Francisco, it's like a ghost town."

"We're looking at an ecosystem that's in severe peril," says Rodney R. McInnis, regional administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service. "It's not just the delta smelt that are affected, but the salmon runs and killer whales and coastal communities."

Two of the four seasonal salmon runs are in danger of extinction because their habitat has been lost to dams, he says.

No amount of political bluster will solve these conflicts. Nor will an approach that treats the needs of every community of water users as superior to everyone else's, that advocates the building of new dams that just repeat or magnify mistakes committed in building the old ones, or that reduces a complex issue to a comic-book conflict between human beings and a tiny fish.

"The fish," says Gleick, "are being scapegoated."

Michael Hiltzik's column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. Reach him at, read previous columns at, and follow @latimeshiltzik on Twitter.

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