The D-Word(s): Drought and the Disaster for Salmon, and Salmon Fishermen

As just about everyone has heard by now, the Governor has declared that California is in a drought, and as a result, he subsequently declared a state of emergency in the Central Valley.  Drought may be the worst ‘bad word’ in California, even though, unlike other bad words, you can say it on broadcast television.  And like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous quote about pornography, California doesn’t have a clear definition of drought – we just know it when we see it. 

I graduated from high school during the 1987-1992 drought.  People couldn’t wash their cars, lawns turned brown, we took shorter showers, and restaurants didn’t serve water unless you asked for it.  Frankly, though, to this urban teenager, I didn’t think it was a big deal. (Not like telling me I couldn’t drive to the beach in my 1982 Celica, or that I couldn’t play video games on our family’s Apple IIe).  Water still came out of the tap, and together we conserved water and survived the drought.  Ah, the bliss of youthful ignorance…

Drought is a big deal in California.  Several water suppliers, including my hometown supplier (the East Bay Municipal Water District) have recently ordered cuts in water use.  Last week the state’s largest water supplier, the Metropolitan Water District, ordered reductions in water use throughout Southern California.  And some farmers face significant reductions in water supply.  

Make no mistake, cities, businesses and farmers will need to work hard to adapt during this dry period.  But there’s another group of Californians who have paid an even higher price: salmon fishermen.  For the first time in the state’s history, the commercial fishery for salmon was completely closed in 2008 in California and most of Oregon, and the recreational fishery is almost entirely closed as well.  It’s likely that 2009 will be just as bad.  The Governor has said the closure will cause losses of more than $250M and more than 2,200 jobs.  The federal government officially declared it a disaster (another D-word), and Congress approved disaster funding for salmon fishermen. 

Although there’s no question that poor ocean conditions are harming the salmon fishery, California’s water projects are responsible for of the lion’s share of the decline in the salmon populations.  Most of California’s salmon swim through the San Francisco Bay-Delta ecosystem, where the dams and pumps kill more than 40% of the juveniles of some salmon and steelhead runs, according to the federal agency charged with protecting salmon (see page 112-114 of the court’s ruling, online here, if you want the details).  And the drought will exacerbate the salmon disaster.  Salmon get hit with a one-two-three punch – poor ocean conditions, poor river conditions because of the drought, and disastrous water policies that make things even worse. 

Ultimately, how careful we are in using water efficiently, for drinking and irrigation water, will determine if there will be wild California salmon available in supermarkets in the future.  Our water policies will determine if salmon fishing families have jobs or are forced to tie up their boats permanently.  If we want to restore our salmon fishery, if we want to fix the Delta, if we don’t want to drive species like salmon to extinction, and if we want sustainable solutions to California’s water crisis, we need to conserve water.  If we had implemented cost-effective water efficiency and conservation measures years ago, we could have helped the salmon and been in better shape to handle the drought.  

If you want to eat wild California salmon, please help conserve water.  Every drop counts. Conservation and more efficient use of our existing supplies must be the keystone of the solution to California’s water crisis.  If we all do our part, we can restore California salmon to our rivers, as well as to our dinner plates.

Save water, save salmon, save California.