In summary

We need state water regulators to avoid repeating the mistakes of the last drought that hurt salmon, fishermen and women.

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By John McManus, Special to CalMatters

John McManus is the president of the Golden State Salmon Association and a former commercial fisherman,

In the first week of May a young salmon boat captain struggled to keep his boat stable and fishing while getting bashed by an unruly spring wind storm near the San Mateo-Santa Cruz county line. Far offshore, where the continental shelf drops off and a huge volume of marine nutrients circulate from the ocean bottom to the surface, salmon gathered. So did borderline gale force winds on top of a 10-foot swell. It looked like the scene at the end of the movie, “The Perfect Storm.”

You’re risking life and limb fishing in those conditions, and you wouldn’t in more normal times. But these aren’t normal times.  

The commercial salmon season has been cut in half this year due to low numbers of salmon. California’s salmon runs are still rebuilding after millions of baby salmon died in the last drought, deprived of the cold water they needed to survive. 

That damage is still being felt by salmon fishing families. Today, water managers are on the verge of repeating that mistake.  

With a young family, big bills and only a few days to fish, our salmon captain felt he had to take extra risks. Decisions being made now by water managers controlling dams and reservoirs could continue putting the lives of those in the salmon industry at more unnecessary risk. It doesn’t have to be this way. 

The State Water Resources Control Board, the agency charged with safeguarding how water is used in California, should step in and order modest reductions in water deliveries to a few agribusiness this summer, but so far they’ve failed to act. 

Growers have options during droughts and will stay in business. Salmon and fishing families don’t. Another reason the water board should act is because we may be in drought again next year. If they empty the reservoirs now, what happens to all of us if next year is dry again? 

In drought, everyone feels pain but how that pain is allocated across society shines a light on which economic and social blocks enjoy access, and which are marginalized.  

A glaring contrast between those now getting the water and those being denied is that some growers have the money needed to be constantly heard by state and federal water agencies and regulators. Salmon fishing families don’t. 

As such, those who fish for a living suffer a social injustice enabled by state and federal water agencies. It’s clear that in California today, under the current state administration, big ag operations are favored over everyone else.  It’s not just salmon fishing families.  

Ask the impoverished communities in the San Joaquin Valley who have their drinking water taken away by neighboring growers who drill deeper wells that rob needed drinking water, rather than see their almond trees go dry. Ask those out in Stockton and other parts of the Delta about the toxic algae blooms they suffer caused by diverted flows. Salmon fishing families aren’t alone in the discrimination. 

Is this the way we have to live? Do we really want to destroy nature and our salmon fishing industry to cushion the agriculture sector that already takes 80% of the state’s water?  

We’ve already seen one of our native species, the Delta smelt, basically disappear in the wild from these water management choices. Six other native fish species are teetering at very low numbers. 

We need the State Water Resources Control Board to act now in a spirit of compromise and fairness that doesn’t force the majority of the pain of drought on any one group or California’s environment. We need state water regulators to avoid repeating the mistakes of the last drought that hurt salmon, salmon fishermen and women, and the multiple communities downstream that are discriminated against. We need basic fairness. 


John McManus has also written about Trump administration attacks on the environment and water diversions.

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