Sierra Club Wages Water War With Growers Over Run of Carmel River


     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - A long-running feud between growers and environmentalists in California is now centered at the base of the lush Santa Lucia Mountains, where the Carmel River winds through the Monterey Peninsula. Growers want water to alleviate the harsh days of drought and environmentalists are fighting to protect the flow needed by steelhead trout, whose numbers are dropping sharply.
     In a federal lawsuit, the Sierra Club and the Carmel River Steelhead Association claim the California American Water Company's unauthorized diversion of water from the Carmel River is responsible for the steelhead's decline. The groups say that despite their fish-rescue efforts, they cannot "prevent the death of an unknown but presumably large number of juvenile steelhead that perish as flows decline."
     The groups say that California American is allowed to divert 3,376 acre-feet from this critical steelhead habitat, but has been diverting up to 10,000 acre-feet annually. "There are of course other causes to the declining steelhead population," said lead attorney Laurens Silver. "But we believe, and everyone concedes, that the reason behind the major decline has been the diversions."
     Growers say that environmentalists are naïve to blame them for the decreased fish populations.
     "Certain environmental groups argue that certain fish species are endangered and that requires a change in the water policy in our state. Their solution is to flush more water out to the ocean and all will be good," says Joel Nelson, president of California Citrus Mutual, a growers' association.
     But restricted water flow leads to crop shortages, higher produce prices, fallow land and unemployment, said Nelson, who has been in the agriculture industry for 25 years.
     "But most parties are unwilling from the environmental community to connect the dots. I have my biases, but we've always been able to work issues out before, until now. You can't stop watering certain parts of the state and expect the state to survive," he said.
     Nelson said environmentalists do not have "legitimate scientific reasoning" to conclude that water diversions are responsible for declining species. He said that significant water shortages resulting from water flow restrictions only inflame the situation.
     "I ask the environmentalists, what is your end game? Is it to have fish float down the river to be eaten by killer whales? Or is it to have a coexistence relationship? Right now, it's to reduce the water supply without looking at the other stressors, which are getting ignored. The sole solution is to take water away from one entity and shift policy through the court system," Nelson said.
     The State Water Resources Control Board has sided with environmental groups on the California American issue, but Silver says the state has not done enough.
     In 1995, the board found that as urban demand for water increased, "wells drilled into the Carmel Valley alluvium aquifer were added to supplement supply," leading to decreased river water levels and the death of many juvenile steelhead.
     The board concluded that "Cal-Am was diverting water unlawfully from the Carmel River," and has imposed constraints on the company, issuing a cease-and-desist order that Silver called "ineffective."
     Silver said that this year adult steelhead returns were only 95, down from 500 in past years, and there have been as few as 15 returns during periods of critical drought.
     "The National Fishery Service has made a determination that the steelhead has a high likelihood of becoming extinct, and our expert agrees," he said.
     The groups wants California American ordered to reduce its Carmel River diversions to the level necessary to preserve the steelhead. "To ask that they cease diverting altogether would be unrealistic, so we're asking for a 25 percent reduction," said Silver.
     Nelson predicts a grim future for California's growers if such groups as the Sierra Club continue to demand restrictions.
     "You'll end up seeing the demise of agriculture in California. You'll lose melons, tomatoes, vegetables, peaches and plums, and growers will say, 'Enough,' sell their land for development and we'll end up importing more of our food product. That's exactly what's going to happen," Nelson said.
     The environmentalists are represented by Laurens Silver with the California Environmental Law Project of Mill Valley.