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1/3/2006 Capital Press  
Price for water-for-salmon tradeoff too costly
Deal will cost too much to restore runs to a river thatís been dry 50 years

Don Curlee

Somebody has to say it. Salmon simply aren't worth the $800 million price tag for the restoration of the waterway that will allow the fish to spawn in the San Joaquin River.

Perhaps even more outrageous is the value and benefits of water that farmers in the San Joaquin Valley must sacrifice from their irrigation allotments to provide upstream spawning grounds for the fish.

Environmentalists, who seem to become less practical, more idealistic and increasingly demanding by the day, argue that more than salmon spawning is gained by restoration of the river bed that has been dried up for more than 50 years.

OK, add some greenery to hold the banks, maybe a bridge here and there and occasional recreational access and the price is still exorbitant.

The defenders of the decision to turn significantly more water down the river instead of storing it behind Friant Dam in Fresno County will say the $800 million is the high estimate for what they call improvements. The low estimate is $250 million. Salmon aren't worth that amount either.

Realistically the $800 million is likely to be overrun multiple times before the mammoth project is completed. Because work is not scheduled to start until several agreements are reached regarding property and rights the cost estimates, high, low or in between, might double even before the project begins.

Representatives of farmers in the complex water world of California say the elements of the stream restoration project are a compromise. If they had not negotiated with environmentalists, the loss of water would have been infinitely greater.

The order to negotiate was issued by federal Judge Lawrence Karlton in Sacramento, who heard the suit brought against farmers, water storage and flood control in behalf of the salmon. The judge established himself as a staunch environmentalist.

Before Friant Dam was built in the 1940s floods of disastrous proportions plagued Fresno and adjacent areas in heavy rain years. Some of the water came from overflows of the Kings River in addition to water flowing unchecked in the San Joaquin River.

Extreme environmentalists detest dams wherever they find them, for whatever purposes they were constructed. They have proposed destruction of Friant Dam. Those who were flooded in the pre-Friant days are now joined by multiple thousands who occupy residential areas considered floodplains before the dams were built at Friant and at Pine Flat on the Kings River.

Farmers, as stewards of the land, used to consider themselves the original environmentalists. Now they can only be dismayed by the actions of today's environmentalism run amok. They may be among the first to see in unbridled environmentalism the seeds of a fascism, hungry for control, not just of rivers, but of life itself.

While fish spawning has been the focal point of the San Joaquin River restoration debate, it's possible that reconstruction of the river is helping spawn something else - rampant, out of control, power hungry environmental extremism.

Even the highest estimates of the cost of river reconstruction pale by comparison with the value of rights by local citizens and their key industries to make wise decisions about their resources without interference by elitist outsiders and biased judges.

Who knows; the next liberal environmentalist crusade might be a call for voter registration - for the fish.

Don Curlee is a veteran ag publications editor and ag freelancer who writes on a variety of farm-related topics from Clovis, Calif.
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