2009: California Water In Review (and Hopes for 2010)

New Year’s provides a good opportunity to look back on the past year, and to look forward to the next.  Here’s my list of 2009’s Good, Bad and Ugly in terms of California water politics, and what I’m wishing for in 2010.

The Good:

A lot was accomplished in 2009:

  • New state water policy reform legislation that prioritizes water use efficiency and the Virtual River of modern water supply tools, that reduces reliance on water exports from the Delta, and which includes new protections for the Bay-Delta estuary and its struggling salmon and other native fish populations; 
  • New federal protections for endangered salmon and steelhead in the Bay-Delta, which will also benefit salmon fishermen in California and Oregon in the coming years; and
  • The release of water down the San Joaquin River for the first time in more than 50 years, as part of the effort to restore the river and its historic salmon fishery. 

The Bad:

Despite the good news above, 2009 was a pretty painful year.  For salmon fishermen, it was another year when boats were tied up on the docks, people lost their jobs and fishing related industries went out of business.  For farmers, it was the third consecutive year of drought, resulting in some farmers, particularly those dependent on federal water supplies in the San Joaquin Valley with junior water rights (like Westlands Water District), having to fallow fields and lay off farm workers.  For cities and urban customers, it was a year of tightening belts and learning to live with less water.  And for environmentally-conscious food consumers, it was another year without local, wild California salmon on our dinner plates.

The Ugly:

The “fish versus people” myth somehow gained some traction, in spite of the facts showing it isn’t true: despite the fact that drought, not endangered species, caused the vast majority of water supply impacts; despite the fact that California saw record or near-record production of tomatoes and rice in 2009, even with the drought and environmental protections, and good years for many other crops; despite the fact that fishing communities, Delta farmers, and others depend on these environmental laws in the Bay-Delta estuary to sustain their livelihoods.

New Year’s Wishes for 2010

While I’ll keep my resolutions private, I do have three wishes for 2010.  I won’t know if Santa has delivered on these wishes until later in the year, although the initial outlook isn’t all that good.

First, I hope that we’ll actually get normal (or above normal) snowpack, rainfall, and runoff in 2010, so there’s more water for fishermen, farmers, cities and the environment.  We’re already pretty far behind average for this time of year, suggesting we may have a fourth year of drought next year.  That’ll make things tough for everyone. So let’s all hope for rain, snow, sleet, and hail (sorry U.S. Postal Service workers!).  Today’s snow survey results aren’t all that promising…

Second, I hope enough salmon return so that we get a salmon fishing season this year.  After suffering through two consecutive years of the fishery being closed because of record low numbers of returning salmon, fishing businesses and fishermen are going out of business, parents haven’t been able to take their kids out fishing for salmon, and consumers haven’t been able to enjoy local, wild California salmon.  Unfortunately, thus far the numbers of returning salmon hasn’t looked too promising, with some hatcheries reporting even fewer fish than last year’s record low levels.  Let’s hope we get enough fish coming back to re-open the fishery, and sustain California’s magnificent salmon runs for future generations to enjoy. 

Third, I hope that Californians, Congress, and the media will reject (or continue to reject) the "fish versus farmers" myth, and focus on real solutions to California's water issues that benefit all Californians, like the water supply tools in the Virtual River, instead of trying to take away environmental protections that fishermen, Delta farmers, and others depend on for their livelihood.

Best wishes for the Holiday Season, and Happy New Year to all.