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Commentary: It’s time for new thinking on water management

Issue Date: March 16, 2016
By Justin Fredrickson
Justin Fredrickson
Water in the swollen Sacramento River laps over its banks near downtown Sacramento. Tens of thousands of acre-feet of water are rushing to the Pacific Ocean, rather than being stored for future use.
Photo/Steve Adler

The big dams and reservoirs that make up the California water system transformed the state from a place the Spanish and Mexican colonizers deemed not good for much except cattle and missions into an incredibly fertile and productive agricultural Eden, and a place that could support thriving urban centers.

The architects of the system knew native runs of salmon would be affected. For those generations of Californians, however, this made sense—and even today, it's undeniable that the dams, canals and pumps that capture the Sierra snowpack and "move the rain" in California were critically important to make our state what it is today.

Faced with these circumstances, and being the action-oriented people they were, our forebears did what they could: They built state-of-the-art, 1950s- and 1960s-era fish hatcheries below the dams, and built structures such as gigantic louvers and fish-counting facilities in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to filter out the fish in the water that was pumped in.

Even with all of the change that occurred, the engineers and biologists of the day knew there were things that could be done to maintain populations of the fish and, in their own pioneering way, they set about doing what they could.

Today, for example, those hatcheries are among the main reasons we can maintain salmon in California. It was a pragmatic solution in the face of what was then seen as a compelling necessity: providing water for a growing economy and population.

Unfortunately, the innovation stopped there, and our water supply, water infrastructure and remaining native fish populations have suffered ever since. While delta pumps in recent years have received disproportionate attention, little has been done to address the introduced, predatory fish that feed on native fish, or to look at other stresses and opportunities in the system. Ocean conditions and management have played a role as well, yet have received scant attention.

From the action-oriented pragmatism of our predecessors, we have moved to hand-wringing reversionism, as those overseeing our water system have imagined that by simply shutting off the spigots we could somehow ignore all of the other factors affecting the fish.

Sadly, as storms produced by the 2016 El Niño barrel down on California in a much-prayed-for "Miracle March," it is all too evident that this strategy has been woefully misguided. Tens of thousands of acre-feet of precious water rush out below the Golden Gate. Neither the fish nor fishermen, nor the farmers and tens of millions of people living in California today, are being well served by the current approach.

The most maddening part is that there are lots of things we could do—and yet we are not doing them. Instead, we continue to do what has been shown not to work, and what will not work, either for fish or water supply.

Rather than vainly "throwing water" at the problems and expecting different results, let's look at a wider set of strategies. Fish breeding, rearing and propagation techniques; targeted habitat restoration; predator control and removal; modern fish screens; conservation hatchery techniques; real-time monitoring and management; and new, fish-friendly infrastructure can take us a long way. So can the addition of new, multipurpose water storage facilities, to provide more flexibility in overall management of the water system and to take some of the edge off of inevitable, periodic drought.

This is what is needed. And yet, for this to occur, we need a cultural paradigm shift. We need a new, visionary generation of conservationists, biologists, agriculturalists, water managers, policymakers—and yes, regulators—who can see the possibilities reflected in the abysmal failures of what we are currently doing. We need to abandon all of the unproductive division and strife, and focus on new, can-do, win-win approaches to shared modern resource-management problems.

If we get creative and figure out ways to make more fish, we will have more water. If we want neither water nor fish, let's just keep going with what we're doing.

Fighting the same old fights again and again is getting us nowhere. Let's wake up and look at our situation anew. It's time for a new approach.

(Justin Fredrickson is an environmental policy analyst for the California Farm Bureau Federation. 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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