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Expected salmon comeback renews fight over water
San Franisco Chronicle
With the expected opening of California's commercial salmon fishery just weeks away, those who catch, study and defend the species are squaring off against those who say federal protections of the fish rob the state of critical jobs and fallow thousands of acres of fertile farmland.
On Thursday, a group of environmentalists, fishing groups and scientists said this year's salmon run - the first relatively healthy season in several years - is made possible by restrictions on the amount of water pumped through the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta between 2008 and 2010.
"For the first time in a long time we're going to have a salmon season and that's due in large part because we've put in place salmon protections that seem to be working," said Cynthia Koehler, California water legislative director with Environmental Defense Fund.
On the other side of the fence, however, advocates of the farming industry contend the curtailed water exports have done little besides put thousands of farmhands out of work and slash the number of acres planted. Instead, they blame pollution, overfishing and invasive species for the collapse of the fishery three years ago.
"For years, the left has used the environment as an excuse to take more and more of this precious resource away from the people," said Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Alpaugh (Tulare County). "It is time for Congress to give it back so that our economy, our farms and our rural communities can thrive."
The "fish versus farms" debate in California water politics is a familiar one. This year, however, a slew of factors have ratcheted up the rhetoric, including the Republicans' sweep to power in the House, milestones in the lawsuits over the pumping cutbacks, bitter memories of California's recent three-year drought and the projection that some state farmers will receive about two-thirds of their requested water despite near-record precipitation this winter.
Hearing on restrictions
On Monday, Nunes and several other Republicans will hold a hearing in Fresno that is expected to lambaste the federal regulations that have tightened the spigot in the delta, a 700,000-square-acre network of channels, levees and pumps at the heart of California's water system.
The estuary is also a critical part of the life cycle for Central Valley salmon. The fish hatch in the upper reaches of California's rivers before navigating the delta and heading out to sea for two years to mature before returning upstream to spawn. Like the dwindling delta smelt, salmon are considered a barometer of the health of the delta ecosystem.