Fresno Bee Newsroom Blog

Proposed fix for Drinking Water Program fades behind political scene

The proposal to replace California Department of Public Health as guardian for the state’s drinking water quietly slipped away last week, dying in a committee. Assembly Bill 145 didn’t even come to a vote in the state Senate.

Drinking water advocates and many people living in small San Joaquin Valley towns are disappointed over the failure of the bill, which never came out of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Small-town residents must buy bottled water to replace tainted tap water.

AB 145, introduced by Henry T. Perea, D-Fresno, would have moved the Drinking Water Program responsibilities to the State Water Resources Control Board, an enforcement agency that already deals with dirty water throughout the state.

The California Department of Public Health administers the program that is known in the Valley as a foot-dragging bureaucracy.

But the agency had support from larger California cities and the Association of California Water Agencies. The water association said the water program works well in many places and needed a more “targeted approach” to solve problems. Their opposition to AB 145 had been clear in the last few months.

Thousands of residents in poor Valley communities have suffered with tainted water as their towns waded through years of bureaucratic red tape at the department of public health.

For those residents, this was like another rebuff on a technicality, say advocates.

“This bill was a game-changer that would have had long-term benefits for communities that are ignored under the current system,” said Maria Herrera, community advocate for the Visalia-based Community Water Center.

Under the Department of Public Health, funding applications for feasibility studies take years. This year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency demanded a spending plan for $455 million of unused federal money entrusted to the department.

Public health officials responded with a spending plan, saying they are streamlining their efforts to move faster.

Media outnumbered salmon in this restoration tale

It was compelling to see adult salmon being put into the San Joaquin River on Wednesday to spawn near Fresno for the first time in six decades.

But I hardly noticed one detail until someone mentioned it: The media outnumbered the fish — probably three to one. I saw at the Associated Press, at least one television crew from San Francisco, local television stations and a host of other  photographers. I actually saw only three fish.

Was this event overplayed by environmentalists, river advocates and the media? I think not, but you can understand why some people might have seen it that way.

First the background. The river went dry around 1950 after Friant Dam was built to help the suffering east San Joaquin Valley farmers. It succeeded in saving farmers, but salmon runs died, nature suffered and the river shriveled.

After a long-running lawsuit was settled in 2006, federal and state wildlife agencies began one of the most unusual river and salmon restoration projects in the country. Nobody has brought back salmon to a 350-mile river that had been dry for 60 miles in the middle.

Since 2009, the restoration has been in an experimental phase. Scientists need to learn how the river and fish will react to a renewed flow of water. This event on Wednesday was publicity for one of those experiments.

The state wildlife crew trapped five fish in western Merced County, north of Los Banos, and hauled them all the way to Fresno at Camp Pashayan. One died along the way. Only two of the fish were placed in the river in front of the cameras.

The remaining fish were hauled farther upstream to be released.

So was that the beginning of salmon spawning near Fresno for the first time in more than a half century? Hardly. The state had been trapping and hauling adult salmon since mid-October. This was not a first.

It was, no doubt, an orchestrated media event. And the out-of-town media incorrectly shaded this story like these few fish signaled the start of the full restoration. This was an experiment, not the full restoration.

But it was a nice snapshot in a long-running story about an unusual event in California. This is the farthest south that salmon spawn in North America — an interesting note that I did not see in any stories about this, including my own.