Nunes Calls for San Joaquin River Salmon to Go Extinct

Nunes Calls for San Joaquin River Salmon to Go Extinct
Image by adifferentbrain via Flickr Creative Commons

By Gary Lasky

In a lengthy, conspiracy-tinged June 12 letter to Investor’s Business Daily, Rep. Devin Nunes (R–Tulare) gives free rein to his interesting fantasies about the incredible clout of environmentalists, including our powerful grip on the courts and the Congress.

Remarkably, Nunes does not pause to think that his newfound position of influence in the leadership of the Republican House majority creates a responsibility for leadership, or, for that matter, to do more than play the victim of an alleged plot of environmental radicals to drain the San Joaquin Valley of water. Thank you for the compliment, Mr. Nunes, but you can only play the “victim” for so long before people see through your act.

A decade ago, I worked as an intern at the National Marine Fisheries Service Southwest Research Center on a fellowship from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA) to study the endangered steelhead trout and salmon fisheries in California. Each day, I passed framed photos of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney in the hallway and hoped that the fish could somehow survive beyond the Bush administration. The scientists on our Technical Advisory Committee were deeply concerned that salmon stocks would go extinct if there were not more cool water released for their survival. The fish are the real victims here.

I didn’t plan on Nunes, bolstered by eager readers, to be startlingly misinformed about the laws of nature. Now, under the Obama administration, the Westlands Water District and other water agencies are bleating to the President, the Governor, Congress, the federal Bureau of Reclamation and anyone else who will listen that we must reduce the water allocations for the fish. The problem is simple: The fish need cool, clean water without sediment in order to spawn and reproduce. No water—no fish.

In 2015, the smelt are likely already extinct and the salmon are next in line. And, for the first time here, Rep. Nunes reveals his plan to force the salmon into extinction. Nunes calls for action by the federal government to destroy the salmon, the key to a $1.5 billion salmon industry, including both commercial and sports fishing. To quote Nunes:

“Instead of continuing to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on an unworkable scheme to recreate salmon runs, we should turn the San Joaquin River into a year-round flowing river with recirculated water. This approach would be good for the warm-water fish habitat and for recreation, and it would save taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars that will otherwise go down the salmon-run rat hole.” [italics are mine]

In other words, Nunes tells us, “Let the cold water salmon go extinct.”

In his letter, Nunes weaves together a few key “big lies” into his tales of woe of Republican politicians. I will focus here on just one: “Water is wasted if it flows into the ocean.”

In fact, it is illegal to deprive the endangered fish of water and seizing all of the water from the Sierra would quickly lead to the ruination of our farms.

Nunes would like to manage the Delta the same way that Friant Dam was managed for 60 years: Dry up the San Joaquin River before it reaches the Delta and export every drop of Sacramento River water that reaches the Delta. The Central Valley Project (federal) and State Water Project operators would never allow this because it would cause catastrophic salinity intrusion from the San Francisco Bay. This would make the Delta unsuitable for all uses—including agriculture, cities and fish—until the next major rainstorm in the fall.

Without sufficient freshwater inputs into the San Francisco Bay-Delta, the ocean saltwater would quickly push all the way into the Delta to the pumps, and then our farmers would be irrigating our farmland with salt water! In fact, this process is already under way, as the saltwater intrusion is beginning to affect farmers’ wells in the Delta region. It turns out that the delta smelt is an indicator species for the health of the Delta, not only for fish and the environment but also for our irrigators.

Beginning with the completion of Friant Dam in 1948, 40 miles of the river ran dry below the dam and Millerton Lake. This water, destined for farmers and, to a lesser extent, the city of Fresno, was 100% captured. Today, 98% of the San Joaquin River’s available water still is captured. This is contrary to the moral responsibility of humans to be stewards of our natural resources for future generations.


Gary Lasky is the conservation and legal chair of the Sierra Club Tehipite Chapter in Fresno. Contact him at 559-790-3495 or data.nations@


  • Community Alliance

    The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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