The adage “One thing leads to another” is reaching new heights in California.
For 150 years we have attempted to suppress forest fires instead of managing them, hindering nature’s way of thinning our forests. Prior to the spotted owl and the Endangered Species Act, we selectively logged the forests that replenished themselves every decade. We also used prescribed burns and grazing to accomplish forest thinning. Grazing and logging also provided jobs and revenue.
The results of ending these practices have been abysmal; forests overgrown up to four times sustainable capacity is at the top of a pile of cascading problems.
Overcrowding has led to competition among trees for water which, in drought years, has stressed the trees, leading to increased bark beetle infestation and a tree mortality rate of epidemic proportions (100 million dead pines, according to the Department of Interior).
There are several consequences of this problem: precariously dangling huge trees ready to fall, and a massive tinder box of fire starter in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
These problems only add to the already escalating preeminence of catastrophic fires. In the last five years we have had more land damaged by fire than the previous seventy years combined.
These catastrophic fires destroy everything by moving into the canopy with little or nothing surviving. The irony is that we lost many of the animals, birds and fish that the ESA was created to protect; the very instrument used to develop this disastrous dilemma.
These destroyed forests will never return to their former status, but will become brushy with chaparral. Our soil and streams were damaged, post-fire, by the runoff which impacted water quality and inundated our water storage facilities with migrating soil, decreasing the storage capacity.
More than 60 percent of California’s water supply originates in the Sierra Nevada. Overgrown vegetation in our forests is consuming vast amounts of water that previously filled our streams, replenished our ground water and filled our reservoirs. Now, the water simply sweats through the leaves of vegetation through the process of evapotranspiration and moves into the atmosphere, according to a study by Dr. Bales of U.C. Merced. By maintaining healthy forest vegetation levels, we would see significant amounts of water enter our streams and replenish the aquifers according to the U.C. Merced study.
An imbalance of trees and chaparral have starved the aquifers of the valley and greatly diminished the water available for communities, farming and fish.
Instead of recognizing and correcting the problem of overgrown forests, the state has attempted to reallocate the diminished water supply to save fish. These are the same fish that hundreds of years before had survived when the rivers had no dams and would go dry in the summer. The real culprits: native fish are challenged by international practices that deplete fisheries, by invasive predator fish, and by excessive sewage dumped into the waters by cities surrounding the Delta.
The trillions of gallons of water allocated to pulse flows and flushing have not saved the fish and we don’t need to continue this practice another thirty years to figure that out.
A new study by Fishbio Consulting, says salmon have not benefited from autumn water releases into the lower Stanislaus River. These pulse flows, which are also conducted in the San Joaquin River, attempt to get adult salmon to spawning areas after a few years in the Pacific Ocean.
These salmon counts were analyzed from 2003 to 2015, and in only two years were there higher fish numbers during these higher autumn flows. Fishbio recommended limiting the pulses in the fall.
This is water that should be saved for recharge into the ground and surface water delivery to struggling communities and farms.
The reallocation of water for fish and environment has curtailed, and in many cases eliminated, surface water delivery to regions which depend on those deliveries. The result has been a dependence on groundwater pumping which, in a normal year, uses 20 percent of the electric grid demand. With pumping, the demand on the grid has increased exponentially, resulting in higher levels of air pollution and escalating consumer costs for food, water and electricity.
Groundwater pumping has returned us to another precarious problem; subsidence, a condition of sinking ground due to excessive pumping below the Cochran Clay level. Subsidence is the reason the Central Valley Project was created. From 1937 to 1955, the ground in Mendota sank 28 feet due to excessive pumping. It was stabilized by the delivery of surface water through the CVP to the region.
As a result of groundwater dependence, and the return of subsidence, the San Joaquin River is subsiding. Sack Dam was reported to have subsided two feet over a few years, which is yet another catastrophe in the making. Once the river sinks to levels that gravity no longer allows its discharge to the ocean, it will flood vast amounts of land in the Central Valley, rendering the land useless. It will make the already ineffective effort to restore salmon to the San Joaquin completely impossible. Billions of dollars that have been invested for infrastructure, and valuable water expended for the restoration, will have been wasted.
In addition to releases for fish and environment, we double down on our problem on the San Joaquin River. In dry years, about 247,000 acre feet is released from Millerton Lake through Friant Dam annually to avoid flooding. In wet years, about 555,000 acre feet are released for the same purpose. Over the course of the last 30 years, this averages an annual flood release of 500,000 acre feet.
This is the equivalent of Bulldog stadium filled with water to nearly 100 miles high. In the last 30 years we have lost enough water to fill Bulldog stadium 2,841 miles high. When turned on its side this water column would stretch from Fresno to New York City 300 feet high and 160 feet wide. This year we are on track for flood releases in excess of 1.5 million acre feet.
Storage in Millerton is inadequate. Building Temperance Flat Dam would more than double the storage capacity we now have, Building that long-planned dam, together with sound water policy, would allow us to reclaim the flood waters we currently waste and replenish our ground-water aquifer. But extreme environmentalists have attempted to derail efforts to build new storage. In addition, priority is being given to fish, environment and recreation, instead of people, groundwater, disadvantaged communities, jobs and farms.
We must stop compounding our problems and start solving them with real scientific evidence and solutions, not conjecture or political pressure. Otherwise, people will continue to be the casualty.
David Rogers is the Madera County supervisor for the 2nd District.