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Commentary: The true fish story: How farmers are helping salmon

Issue Date: September 22, 2021
By Danny Merkley
Supported by agriculture and the California Water Association, the River Garden Farms project uses rice fields as flood plains to develop food supplies for juvenile salmon populations.
Photo/Courtesy of River Garden Farms
Danny Merkley

As a fourth-generation Sacramento Valley farmer and the California Farm Bureau's director of water resources for nearly 14 years, I have learned that California's farmers and ranchers are the real environmentalists. That title isn't earned by some of the more extreme environmental groups or opportunists filing lawsuits or putting out misinformation.

Their efforts seemed to be on display last week in an in-depth Washington Post article, "California's Disappearing Salmon," that lapsed into the all-too-familiar narrative about "the push-pull between farmers and environmentalists over water." Here we go again with that yarn about thirsty farms killing the fish.

The actual story is this: Real environmentalists in farming are developing an alternative regime for fixing the fish problems in our rivers, which avoids the current hard path of litigation.

Farmers are supporting solutions that reduce the burden on water users while also undertaking fish conservation efforts to address predator control, food supply and habitat restoration. For example, consider these initiatives:

• The Nigiri Project uses flooded rice fields rich in food and free of predators to raise juvenile salmon.

• River Garden Farms and the Northern California Water Association's project, just south of Shasta Dam, features structures known as refugia that are placed in the river to give juvenile salmon a place to rest, feed and seek protection from larger, predatory fish.

• The Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District, in partnership with local, state and federal agencies, constructed the Market Street Bridge gravel project in Redding to restore salmon spawning habitat.

• Food being grown in the Sacramento bypass releases critical nutrients into the fish-food-deprived Sacramento River.

These are projects by farmers, ranchers and agricultural irrigation districts in partnership with universities and local, state and federal agencies as well as environmental organizations that truly want to help the environment.

They are projects that look at ways to improve "functional flows" in rivers as opposed to strict flow-only numbers for environmental policy. They show great promise in near-term improvements for the environment, species and habitat.

Releasing more and more water for fish survival is not the silver bullet. Blaming farmers and ranchers is a lazy man's approach.

The Washington Post says "while farmers have found ways to become more efficient with water use in recent decades, the agriculture industry is still using more water than any other industry in California—about 40%"—of human uses. That's the water use percentage every other developed country in the world uses to produce food.

But in California, the difference is this: Farmers and ranchers have increased crop production per acre foot of applied water by more than 43% since 1967.

Yes, it is evident in recent decades that we are experiencing more frequent and longer drought periods, punctuated by atmospheric rivers that produce heavy precipitation years in between. We are seeing our precipitation come in the form of rain with less snow in the Sierra.

Yet California policymakers have done little to nothing to maintain, repair and adapt our water infrastructure that is more than 50 years old. If we truly want to be climate and water resilient for fish and people, we need to rebuild that infrastructure for today's reality.

Still, the Washington Post depicts the Central Valley as a villainous "home to the state's lucrative and politically powerful $42 billion a year agricultural industry." The fact is that "industry" is made up in large part by tens of thousands of small family farms and ranches, including conventional and organic agriculture, that produces 400 commodities.

California family farmers and ranchers feed much of this nation and others around the world because we are blessed with the climate and resources to produce the healthiest food and farm products in the world. We do so with more regulations in place than anywhere else in the world to protect the environment, our scarce natural resources and the farmworkers who plant, cultivate and harvest the food.

In 2006, California Polytechnic University, San Luis Obispo, conducted a study on regulatory costs for a lettuce grower and found regulations cost $109.16 per acre—or 1.26% of production costs. In 2017, Cal Poly found the same grower's regulatory costs were up to $977.30—8.9% of production costs.

From my experience, farming and ranching is a great way to make a life, but a tough way to make a living. For many in agriculture, it is far from lucrative.

But farmers are making sacrifices and, yes, working to protect the environment and salmon populations.

Those so-called environmentalists should understand that the fight over water is not between fish and farms. They also could stand to read up on what it takes to produce the food and get it from the farm to their forks.

(Danny Merkley is director of water resources for the California Farm Bureau. He may be reached 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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