The Science of Water Limits

S.F. Chronicle-3/20/10 Editorial

Score one for science. A national panel waded into California’s water wars and sided with salmon and smelt in a politically loaded showdown with Central Valley farmers.

The report sprinkled “scientifically justified” throughout its 64 pages, which backed up water curbs denounced by valley water agencies and farmers. The findings came with important caveats and a call for more research on the state’s sickly water system. But the message is clear: It’s time to negotiate water use and not look for a political knockout punch.

After three years of drought, the federal and state water pumps in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta were dialed down to nearly zero, turning fertile Central Valley acreage into dust bowls in the nation’s biggest farming state. Adding to the restrictions were decisions by two federal agencies to withhold water for declining stocks of salmon, sturgeon and smelt.

Under heavy pressure to aid farms, the Obama administration this past week ordered the faucets opened, an action eased by an especially wet winter. But before that announcement, farm leaders had begged for a fresh look at the restrictions and found an ally in Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who ordered up the $750,000 study, even though previous scientific studies by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had clearly established the need to preserve water for the fish.

The findings reiterated the need for curbs on water deliveries. Laws protecting jeopardized species were properly used in safeguarding plummeting fish stocks, the study by a 15-member panel said.

But there were concessions to the ag side. The giant pumps that kill fish and ship water south aren’t the only villains. Pollution, dams, damaged watersheds, and the timing and amount of water withdrawals all play a role. Even other fish such as catfish and non-native striped bass can be harmful, the scientists said.

Agriculture doesn’t deserve the exclusive blame, the report said, in a finding that should soften the sting of its overall support for limits on water deliveries. Finding a flexible answer that siphons off water with minimal environmental damage is the best answer, though striking the right balance will take “careful monitoring, adaptive management and additional analyses.”

Whether this happens is one of California’s biggest challenges. A polarized debate exists between environmentalists and farmers, North versus South, and coast against valley.

This year’s wet weather brought a reprieve, but it won’t last forever in a growing state facing climate change. The report should remind the state that simple answers and political pressure won’t solve a water crisis. It will take consensus and balance. That’s good science too.