No, California isn’t ‘flushing water to the ocean,’ despite what Fresno politicians say

Article from Fresno Bee.

By Marek Warszawski
May 07, 2021 05:00 AM

It’s that time of drought again.

During one of the driest years on record, once again curtailing water deliveries to local farms, Fresno-area lawmakers wasted little time trotting out one of their favorite falsehoods.

That every year, including the parched ones like 2021, California “wastes” millions of gallons of water by “flushing it to the ocean.

Central San Joaquin Valley residents have heard this declaration so often and for so long, from the mouths of politicians and parroted on talk radio, that many of us believe it’s true. Because we’re all human beings and susceptible to influence, this tendency can’t be helped. Psychologists call it an “illusory truth effect.”

Clear the wool from your eyes. The truth is far more complex and nuanced, one that requires us to adopt a larger mindset about our state’s ecosystem.
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Start with basic geography. California’s two largest rivers don’t flow to the Pacific Ocean — at least not directly. The Sacramento (from the north) and San Joaquin (from the south) actually flow into what’s officially called the San Francisco Bay-Delta Estuary, known colloquially as the Delta.

I’m guessing that’s not news to most folks. What they may not understand about the Delta — and certainly won’t be told by Fresno-area politicians bent on keeping the narrative simple — is the vital role it serves not just for fish and the environment, but entire fishing industries. In addition to providing water for Bay Area residents and farmers in five counties.

Those same politicians certainly won’t tell you the Delta, thanks to decades of diversions, over-pumping and slow poisoning, is on the brink of ecological collapse. Because that doesn’t fit their narrative, either.

For an alternative viewpoint, I phoned Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, executive director and co-founder of Restore the Delta, and asked how she reacts each time she hears about all the water California “flushes” out to sea.
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“Years ago I would’ve gotten angry,” Barrigan-Parrilla said. “Now I just get sad that there are people leading us who couldn’t stay awake during eighth-grade geography.”

California’s largest, most productive estuary

The Delta is our state’s largest and most productive estuary — by far — and like all estuaries it depends on an influx of fresh water. Further reducing those flows (i.e. by diverting more for agriculture in our neck of the woods) would only hasten environmental and economic ruin someplace else.

Without fresh water, Barrigan-Parrilla explained the Delta’s sloughs and waterways would go stagnant by allowing nitrogen discharges to accumulate. (Fertilizer is among the primary sources.) Those pollutants grow into toxic algae blooms that kill wildlife and cause an array of health problems in humans, in addition to negatively impacting water quality.

“We already have a significant algal bloom problem in San Joaquin County and that is because of warmer temperatures, less flows, too many water exports and incoming nitrate pollution,” she said.

The other reason fresh water flowing into the Delta isn’t “wasted” — and this should be the obvious one — is because without it, California’s entire fishing economy would collapse. That includes commercial and recreational.

“If you take away fresh water in your estuaries and don’t grow your fisheries, you lose fish in the ocean,” Barrigan-Parrilla said. “It’s a chain effect. Orcas in South Puget Sound (Washington) survive on Sacramento River salmon. Everything is tied together, and people are tied to these economies.”

Ah yes, people. Let’s not forget about people. The same Fresno-area politicians that push the “flushing water” myth tend to frame the fight over water as “people versus fish.”

As if the only “people” who matter in this debate are the farmers and farming interests they represent. What about the 500,000 residents of the Contra Costa Water District who depend on the Delta as their primary water source?

Compromise required, not territorial ‘delusions’

And what about all the farmers, mainly in San Joaquin County but also others, who utilize Delta water to irrigate their crops?

Is the fresh-water component of California’s largest estuary, enough to keep salt-water levels from rising and surging inland, “wasted” on them?

“Basically they’re saying screw the Delta farmers,” said Bill Jennings, executive director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance. “That’s farmers in one place saying screw farmers in another so they can have water. It’s not just fish.”

Heated rhetoric over water and water allocations is nothing new, certainly. (“The Dreamt Land: Chasing Water and Dust Across California” by Fresno author Mark Arax provides the most epic, sweeping understanding of the issue.) And since the economies of Fresno, Kern, Tulare, Merced, Kings and Madera counties are dependent on agriculture production, it only makes sense that local electeds advocate for larger allotments.

In fact, we’d expect nothing less. Farmers need water to grow crops, and those without senior water rights (which includes just about all of them who draw from state and federal conveyance projects built after World War II) are often left high and dry in drought years. Which increasingly looks to be the new normal due to climate change.

Finding solutions for our state’s dwindling water supply will require fresh ideas and compromise. But when we allow our local politicians to propagate delusions without push-back, it only lets them off the hook.

Remember that next time one of them contends California “wastes” millions of gallons of water by “flushing it to the ocean.”

Either they possess remedial-level knowledge of the state’s ecology, or they assume you do.

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