SAN FRANCISCO -- California congressmen George Miller and Mike Thompson stumped for salmon fishermen yesterday during a political rally here meant to counter the political muscle of San Joaquin Valley farmers who tend to get more media attention in the long-running war over the state's strained water supply.
The Democratic lawmakers represent Northern California districts that were once home to some of the nation's most active king, or chinook, salmon runs. But the California and Oregon salmon fishery that largely starts in the Sacramento River north of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta has collapsed.
There were 28,000 naturally spawning Central Valley salmon caught in 2009, down from nearly 700,000 wild salmon harvested as recently as 2000. The plummeting catch has led to the cancellation of the commercial salmon season the past two years, causing the loss of 23,000 jobs and $2 billion in revenue, according to a study by Southwick Associates, an analytical firm that specializes in resource issues.
Commercial salmon fishermen blame the agriculture industry for the fishery's collapse -- namely, Central Valley farmers who have seen their share of water from federal and state sources steadily increase in recent years. Water exports from the delta, the fishermen say, had reached record highs from 2003 to 2007, prior to the fishery collapse and the implementation of pumping limits under the federal Endangered Species Act.
And though there are other factors hurting fish in the delta, Miller, Thompson and the blue-collar band of trollers they support believe the salmon side of the California water story has been neglected. They say television news reporters -- notably, representatives of Fox News and CBS's "60 Minutes" -- have come to California in the past year to tell one part of a complex tale of pressures on the troubled delta, which supplies much of the state's drinking water.
The congressmen had harsh words in particular for a group of "third tier" water rights holders, led by the Westlands Water District, that have fought in court and in political circles to get more water from reservoirs and the delta. But they also said courts are starting to sense the gravity of the situation, as evidenced this week by a federal district court decision rejecting an attempt to attain a restraining order on the salmon recovery plan.
"We've always fought an uphill battle" against the agriculture industry, Thompson said in an interview. "But it's wrong to choose economic winners and losers. That's why these people are here today."
Miller, who is now in his 18th term on Capitol Hill and whose father fought the same water fights as a state senator, has long been an advocate of the fishing community. He is also the lawmaker most likely to take on Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who many in the fishing industry view as their nemesis. In a swipe at the state's senior U.S. senator, Miller said the recent National Academy of Sciences review of the science behind a salmon recovery plan confirms that rolling back the Endangered Species Act to allow more water to flow to farmers should not be on the table.
"This system has to be looked at as a waterway of national significance," said Miller, comparing the delta to the Everglades and the Chesapeake Bay. "This is the beginning of a long struggle to right what is wrong."
Industry on life support
The rally that drew several hundred people here yesterday was staged by the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, the Environmental Defense Fund, the Natural Resources Defense Council and local fishing groups. Hundreds of fishermen, many clad in blue jeans and baseball caps, attended and carried signs that said, "I love salmon and I vote" and "Fishermen deserve better."
Larry Collins, a commercial angler based in Fisherman's Wharf and president of the Crab Boat Owners Association of San Francisco, said the industry is making a concerted effort to counter "agribusiness bigwigs" who he accuses of stealing water. Collins concedes that many in the state have started to view the fishermen as something of a dying breed, but he said restoration of wild salmon is still possible if voters start paying attention.
"We've lost 80 percent of our fleet in the last 25 years," Collins said, citing a drop in state-issued fishing permits from 5,000 in 1985 to about 1,200 today. "I don't think the farmers can say that."
Key to their strategy is the species-protection law, which has forced a federal judge to place limits on how much water can be pumped from the delta. Spring-run and winter-run chinook salmon are listed as endangered already, and the fall-run may not be far behind.
"The [Endangered Species Act] has been the key to holding the line," said Jim McCarthy, of SalmonWaterNow. "These environmental protections are really all these fisherman have."
The commercial fishermen are also hoping the legal maneuvering to outsmart a federal biological opinion on salmon, which has led to the pumping curtailment, will stop once public pressure is brought to bear. Dick Pool, who owns Pro-Troll Fishing Products in Concord, Calif., said federal scientists should be able to enforce the Endangered Species Act outside political pressure from farmers who, in his view, should be directed to work harder at efficiency and plant more drought-resistant crops.
But why not shift the focus away from salmon to crab, halibut, tuna or rock cod, all of which are fished out of the San Francisco Bay? Because there is money in salmon.
Collins said 70 percent of his income has been historically attached to the salmon catch, which is the top-selling fish in the United States. Duncan McLean, captain of the Barbara Faye out of Half Moon Bay, Calif., says the only reason he started fishing crab was to pay his taxes.
"Losing the salmon season," McLean said, "is like retailers losing Christmas."
'David vs. Goliath'
Still, the fishermen acknowledge "Big Ag" tends to hold more political sway in California.
Feinstein has long favored exporting more water to farms in the valley, which is considered a pillar of the state's economy, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) was able to push through a series of water bills last year that could lead to billions of dollars invested in infrastructure designed to store more water and transfer it around the state.
Schwarzenegger and Feinstein both support an $11 billion water bond that goes before voters in November. The campaign on the bond is expected to pit environmentalists and fishermen against irrigators and farmers, with Democrats and Republicans slugging it out on the sidelines depending on their constituency.
To Collins, who calls the forthcoming ballot fight "David vs. Goliath," the future of his industry is linked to that bond like no other piece of policy. If it passes, Collins says he might as well start planning for retirement.
"We're done if that thing passes," Collins said. "The farmers are never going to stand up and say, 'We have enough water now.'"
Miller said the answer is to "back up" the fishing community's passion in Washington, where he wants Congress to approach the delta's maze of problems with the same kind of state-federal partnership responsible for attempting to restore the Everglades. Miller has met recently with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and White House Council on Environmental Quality Chairwoman Nancy Sutley to urge a deltawide approach, as opposed to a piecemeal project-by-project strategy.
As for the farmers, Miller said he wants to reach out to them and bring all interests to the table.
"We asked our colleagues in the Central Valley, were they willing to check their guns at the door?" he said. "We can't go back to the old way of doing business."
The White House appears to be listening to both sides. Salazar conceded to Feinstein when she demanded the NAS study of the delta. And he included in the Obama administration's budget proposal for fiscal 2011 increases of $106.0 million for Land and Water Conservation Fund programs and $71.4 million for investments in major ecosystem restoration projects in the Chesapeake Bay, California's Bay Delta, the Gulf Coast of Louisiana and Mississippi, and the Everglades.
Asked whether he saw that political balance on the issue might be shifting away from agriculture to the fishing community, Rep. Thompson was philosophical.
"I don't think," he said, "that's going to change anytime soon."