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Commentary: Real-world efforts hold hope for salmon, farmers

Issue Date: September 21, 2016
By Justin Fredrickson
Justin Fredrickson
In the Nigiri Project at Knaggs Ranch north of Sacramento, above, researchers raise salmon in winter-flooded rice fields. The project has shown the fields provide useful habitat for fattening juvenile salmon before they run to the ocean.
Photo/Kate Campbell

It's longstanding environmental orthodoxy: More water equals more fish. It drives water policy, up to and including the latest proposal by the State Water Resources Control Board to redirect more water from the lower San Joaquin River, as Ag Alert® reports this week.

But there's a quiet challenge to that orthodoxy that shows another path is not only believed to be possible—it's actually happening!

Forward-thinking, new-generation conservationists are cracking the code and changing the world. And that's potentially great news for farmers.

A prime example of this is Knaggs Ranch, at the top of the Yolo Bypass north of Sacramento. There, a collaboration led by the University of California, Davis, and California Trout, known as the Nigiri Project, is showing winter-flooded rice fields can double quite handily as habitat for fattening juvenile salmon on their way out to sea.

As reported widely during the last couple of years, in various places—including Ag Alert—a band of fish biologists and grad students is shaking up the orthodoxy about salmon survival.

They're turning Central Valley rice farms into food productivity cells. Then, they're turning around and pumping out fat, healthy, evolutionarily fit salmon, beyond anyone's wildest expectations.

This is not your usual California water policy deadlock—and projects like Knaggs Ranch are just the beginning. This is real-world, exciting stuff. In an area of policy where nothing good seems to happen, ever, it's nothing short of revolutionary.

As exciting as is this, though, I worry how it's playing to others in a diverse environmental community. To the Old Guard Environmental Establishment, you see, it's not hard to imagine where such new conservation successes could be not just vaguely threatening, but downright heretical.

The Old Guard worldview goes something like this:

  1. Farming is inherently bad.
  2. Fish need water, and farms use water.
  3. Fish are doing poorly.
  4. Therefore, fish and farmers are irreconcilable foes.
  5. Given the inherent, existential conflict between fish and farmers, society has the indisputable, moral obligation to help the fish, whatever the cost—even if such efforts are misguided and shown not to work.
  6. To get more fish, you need more water.
  7. To get more water, you need fewer farms.
  8. Once you get more water by having fewer farms, if that still does not work, then the answer must be that you need even more water, by having even fewer farms.
  9. Rinse and repeat, rinse and repeat.

For the Old Guard, this model works really well as a way to accumulate power, foster conflict, raise funds, collect legal fees, and do nothing for the fish. The problem is, eventually, you hit rock bottom—reservoirs draining, no farms, lots of water flowing to the ocean and still nothing to show for it. Indeed, precisely that scenario has played out on the statewide stage, with increasingly more water wrested from farms and cities, even as fish populations continue to struggle.

Because the Old Guard Environmental Establishment's mantra is always "flow, flow, flow," it puts little stock in things such as functional habitat, collaborative partnerships, new technologies, fish passage, productivity, reducing predation and ordinary fish biology.

Now, mind you, that's not to say fish don't need water. Obviously, they do. What's certain, though, is that water is an increasingly scarce resource in California.

Against that backdrop, we've got to make sure we're targeting our precious water in precisely the right times, volumes and places to make a real difference—and we have to be accountable when that fails to produce results.

During the last several decades, farmers have screened and re-operated and conserved and transferred and dedicated and complied and adapted and innovated and gone greener and done more with less, or simply gone without. And still the Old Guard calls for more of the same.

It's been said a lot lately, but I'll say it one more time: All that water doesn't seem to be making much of a difference for the fish—and it sure as heck isn't working for farmers and the rest of the state's residents.

That's where many in agriculture are coming to the conclusion that it's time for something new. And that's why I so appreciate the work of a new generation of hands-on, can-do conservationists, who see actual possibilities.

I challenge the Old Guard Environmental Establishment to follow the lead of what I'm going to call the New Generation of Authentic Conservationists.

Let's take a hard look at our fruitless and conflict-ridden past. Then, let's ask if there's really nothing better we could be doing to avoid all of those same old disputes—and let's instead put our energy into generating actual, real-world results for the good of all.

The pioneering work at Knaggs Ranch shows that there may, indeed, be such a way.

(Justin Fredrickson is an environmental policy analyst for the California Farm Bureau Federation. He may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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