Take a trip to ground zero in the California water wars.
It is not the pumps at Tracy. It is not the Owens Valley. It is not where Gov. Newsom wants to plop down his myopic tunnel vision to siphon life giving water away from the Delta to guarantee non-native Kentucky bluegrass can make Beverly Hills estates shine like emerald fields while slowly destroying the Delta ecological system.
Ground zero is just a short eight mile drive down Airport Way where you will find mid-afternoon farm equipment intermingling with Tracy Amazon commuters eager to return to their homes in northern Modesto via downtown Ripon.
From the bridge that spans the San Joaquin River you can see where all data that is important to California’s future when it comes to water ultimately is gleaned whether it is water temperature, water flows, or water levels.
The place is appropriately known as Vernalis. It is a Latin word meaning “of the spring.” Those who joined the Gold Rush but soon learned the good life was not paved with ripping apart the Sierra in a search for specks of gold but in hard work yielding bushels of golden wheat from the fertile Central Valley soil gave this place its name.
Today the scattering of homes in the area we call Vernalis is a mixture of what remains of once massive riparian woodlands along with farmland to the west of the San Joaquin River.
But the Vernalis moniker that matters to 40 million Californians whether they know it or not references where the Stanislaus and San Joaquin rivers converge.
If you stand in the middle of the Airport Way bridge and look to the southeast of a sandbar exposed in the middle of the river you can see the bend where the Stanislaus River disappears into the San Joaquin River. On the east banks pressed up against levees holding back the San Joaquin and Stanislaus Rivers is a grape vineyard whose bounty supplies McManus Family Winery. The west bank once harbored an overnight boom-bust hamlet known as San Joaquin City.
A point just north of the bend was the farthest large boats could once navigate up the San Joaquin River. They made their way from the San Francisco Bay to the docks of San Joaquin City to haul the massive wheat harvest that at one time allowed San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties to boast of being the bread bowl of the nation. The endless ambers of grain and San Joaquin City were both short-lived having largely disappeared by the end of the1860s.
There is a historic marker for San Joaquin City just off Kasson Road south of the country-style store-restaurant known as Jimmy’s. No one gives it much notice, if any at all.
The same is not true of Vernalis. It is far from a household name in this part of California let alone the rest of the state. But it pops up daily in United States Geological Survey reports as well as being tucked into massive state water supply and flood reports, court filings in California’s never ending water wars, and research pertaining to the threatened Chinook salmon.
Taking a reading at Vernalis is akin to taking the pulse, blood pressure, and temperature of the collective body that represents 70 percent of all consumed water in this state whether it is for urban, farm, or artificially propping up — and regulating — year round flows for fish and rivers.
It is at the point where the last tributary joins the San Joaquin before the river — which is the state’s second longest with a watershed to match — feeds into the Delta.
Three of the San Joaquin’s tributaries — the Merced, Tuolumne, and Stanislaus — are what is being looked at to keep the Delta whole so Los Angeles, parts of the Bay Area, and large corporate farmers in the southwestern San Joaquin Valley can get as much water as they can seize.
Those dedicated to the preservation of the Delta ecological system as well as those who depend on the multi-million dollar industry that thrives on bass fish also watch the numbers at Vernalis.
Bass, for those keeping tab on monkey wrenches that have hammered native fish and in doing so has corrupted water policy — is the Delta’s equivalent of a destructive invasive species on par with the pythons of the Florida Everglades.
Water flow at Vernalis is critical for Chinook salmon as is the temperature of the water. Studies by Fishbio show the number of Chinook salmon once they get past Vernalis on their journey to the Pacific Ocean are devoured in staggering quantities by the non-native bass.
At the center of the flurry of lawsuits — irrigation districts against the state and the state against the federal government — is ultimately the state’s push to increase the Chinook salmon population by a mere 1,103 fish combined on the Stanislaus, Merced, and San Joaquin rivers.
The state wants to flush the three rivers with 300,000 acre feet of more water that is captured behind reservoirs currently for the use of Northern San Joaquin Valley farms and cities.
The state’s own data says the tradeoff for 1,103 more fish could take 132,000 acres out of farm production, cause a $12.9 billion annual reoccurring loss to the three-county region, eliminate 4,000 jobs, and further imperil the groundwater by forcing cities and farms to pump 1.57 million acre feet — the equivalent of just over three-fifths of New Melones Reservoir when it is filled to the brim.
More water in the river means cooler water temperatures. Varying water by a degree or two at certain times can literally kill fish as it impacts oxygen and body heat especially if it happens during low water levels as the air temperature rises.
Such reality begs the question no one has asked. Given there is climate change, are efforts that would alter ground recharge and such for much of the valley make much sense if there is diminishing returns for the Chinook salmon?
After all the tributaries of the Lower San Joaquin are the farthest south that the Chinook salmon can survive. If climate change will raise temperatures a degree or two you likely could take all of the water stored unnaturally by man on the Stanislaus, Merced, and Tuolumne rivers and use it to help the Chinook salmon and come up empty.
Shifting 300,000 acre feet of water from farms and cities to bump up flows for projected periods of less precipitation if you embrace various climate change models will have the same result of helping the Chinook salmon if everyone in San Francisco collectively used another 300,000 acre feet of water to flush toilets that would end with the water being treated and dumped into the Pacific Ocean at the southern end of Ocean Beach.