Why Newsom Must Fix Brown’s Misguided California Water Policy Before It’s Too Late for Our Fish

California salmon fisherman Mike Hudson wrestles a Sacramento River Chinook salmon on his boat, the F/V Cash Flo II

Photo: California salmon fisherman Mike Hudson wrestles a Sacramento River Chinook salmon on his boat, the F/V Cash Flo II

Jerry Brown did many good things for the state of California during his multiple tenures as governor, but water management was not among them. He was a good showman, but it has been rightly pointed out that Brown’s cap-and-trade policy was a missed opportunity and that offshore oil drilling in state-managed leases has increased since 2012. Yet it remains an even larger curiosity that a politician so concerned about stemming the ravages of climate change and supporting a greener California would be so myopic and misguided about one of the state’s greatest — and most contentious — resources: water. And the impacts of these mistakes to our fisheries couldn’t be more significant right now.

If Jerry Brown’s misguided approach becomes newly elected Governor Gavin Newsom’s agenda by default, we could lose California salmon fisheries for all time.

Just installed in the Governor’s office, Gavin Newsom takes claim of the largest state political program in the country. Our economy being the fifth largest in the world, California provides an example for the region and rest of the nation, and the example we’ve shown with regards to water is pure folly. Newsom needs to fix it immediately, and he can start by getting the right people installed in the right places — and of course, by defunding the so-called Cal WaterFix, the Delta twin tunnels. Indicating that he was in favor of an option more modest than two tunnels, Newsom recently told the Los Angeles Times that, “the status quo is not helping salmon.”

Unfortunately, not much is. Every environmental choice made on land ends up in the sea, making fishermen the ultimate recipients of a long chain of poor choices. Fishing professionals rely on a healthy environment to thrive yet are excluded from important environmental policy discussions. Fishery representatives and fishing professionals must be a part of Newsom’s coalition on environmental policy.

The unquestionable failure of Brown’s Resources Agency to protect native salmon from poor management and plain old greed was shocking for years. Governor Newsom has a real opportunity to change the agenda and the culture at Resources. But he must leave the State Water Board intact, as it has been doing a better job of upholding its mandate to conserve fisheries than ever before.

As is the case with many federally managed fisheries, California salmon fishermen are leaps and bounds ahead of our state’s overall record when it comes to stewardship of the fishery. Water flows must remain high and, yes, ultimately run out to sea, taking fish with them, where those fish will be managed well and where fishermen will leave enough in the water for the next cohort. But if the state fails to make the situation better, it will be for naught.

Water policy remains one of our biggest challenges, particularly as climate change becomes more impactful and aggressive. The time is now to protect salmon with adequate water flows from the Delta and beyond, to support our hatcheries so that fingerlings fulfill their promise of maturity and return to spawn. Ultimately, we must work to fix the terrible conditions we ourselves have created.

About Noah Oppenheim

Noah Oppenheim is the principal of Homarus Strategies LLC. He lives in Brunswick, Maine.

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