Union Democrat Editorial Board

How much money does it take to move a fish from Copperopolis to San Francisco?

If you guessed more than $1.8 million, you'd be right.

That's the estimated breakdown of water costs for a series of "pulse flows" being conducted by the federal government starting this week. The water releases from New Melones Reservoir are intended to flush steelhead trout to the San Francisco Bay Delta and, eventually, the ocean.

The science is a little murky, and the math entirely illogical. But it goes something like this:

• About 30 endangered steelhead babies needed assistance getting to the Pacific Ocean this spring. According to fishery biologists, maybe six steelhead remain in the Stanislaus River at this point. Perhaps 23 made it the delta last month.

• The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation this week started releasing 16,000 acre-feet (5.2 billion gallons) of water for a controversial "pulse flow" intended to push the remaining fish to sea.

• Water ­- very precious this year - is fetching about $700 per acre-foot, according to various sources. That brings the total value of water being used for this exercise to $11.2 million.

Mind blowing, yes. Particularly in a year when toilets throughout the state will go unflushed, when fields once growing untold millions of dollars worth of crops will lay fallow, when the state's depleted groundwater aquifers will continue to be overpumped, when food prices for everything from tomato paste to rice are bound to skyrocket, etc.

We like fish, too. Just not rigid bureaucracies or this kind of flunkynomics (we'll offer some of our own next).

Should we see another drought year next year, or again in the nearer future, we offer a solution.

First, buy six Plexiglas temperature-regulated tanks (you know, the expensive kind, maybe 180-gallon ones with all the gizmos from PetSmart for, like, $3,000 each). Add fish and water.

Then, hire six fishery biologist chaperones to watch each fish (maybe $200 an hour for 10 hours?), five bodyguards to carefully attend to each salmon/biologist team ($900 each per day is the going rate for really good ones in So Cal), and a fleet of limousines (let's not skimp, maybe the Humvee kinds for $165 an hour for this maybe 10-hour operation) to deliver the fish to the ocean safely and in high style.

Wait ­- that's only $45,300. Something must be wrong with the math?

Since we're not experts in such matters, let's create a 1,000-percent financial buffer (you know, traffic jams, Starbucks stops, maybe even a beachside bumper party to celebrate), bringing our grand total to $453,000.

That's still about a 96 percent savings over what the bureau is now doing. This, and the fish would avoid the hostile Delta (the kill rate there is reportedly 90 percent or more). And we'd still have 16,000 acre-feet of water behind New Melones Reservoir for consumption and/or irrigation.

There is something very fishy (or very stupid) about what the Bureau of Reclamation and National Marine Fisheries Service are up to right now.

Maybe our congressman, Tom McClintock, a strong critic of these releases, could get his fellow Republicans to investigate suggestions being made in some corners that this is not really about fish.

Rather, could it be about sending water to the Delta, where it's picked up by state and federal pumping stations that deliver water to powerful San Joaquin Valley and Southern California farm and urban interests?

(Some credit is due Jack Cox, of the Lake Tulloch Alliance, who's made similar points about the expense of there releases using different figures, and no moving expenses).

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