The War on Salmon

Cynthia Koehler and Barry Nelson
S.F. Chronicle March 14, 2010

California is at war with its native salmon. Historically, hundreds of thousands – some estimate millions – of salmon migrated through the San Francisco Bay to Central Valley streams to spawn. The era of big dams changed things dramatically, but even 30 years ago California had enough salmon to support major fishing fleets.

Since the 1960s, however, salmon populations have declined dramatically, resulting in listings under federal and state endangered species laws. In the almost two decades since the endangered listing, the situation has only worsened. In the past five years, this decline has become a free fall. Unless we change course, salmon runs face the very real prospect of extinction and California faces a possible permanent loss of our salmon fishery.

Why? There is no single answer, but at the heart of the issue is that, since salmon were listed as an endangered species, the state and federal water projects have substantially increased the amount of water pumped out of the San Francisco Bay/Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta estuary. In short, we have not managed our water system to account for the basic needs of salmon.

In the early 1990s, combined water diversions out of the bay and delta averaged less than 5 million acre-feet. At this level of diversion, the two water projects killed staggering numbers of fish: In the 15 years before 1996, 110 million fish were trapped at the state pumps alone. Beginning 10 years ago, the projects dramatically increased pumping, reaching a record 6.5 million acre-feet in exports in 2006.

The unprecedented population decline that followed led to the closure of the salmon fishing industry for a historic two years running. The closure has already cost the California economy 2,700 fishing industry jobs, according to the state Department of Fish and Game, and many thousands more according to other estimates, and more than half a billion dollars.

It was not supposed to be this way.

In 1988, the state adopted a policy of doubling populations of salmon. Four years later, Congress adopted the same policy. Salmon doubling, if achieved, would not match historic runs, but it would ensure that salmon remain a sustainable part of the California landscape, continuing to provide jobs for fishermen, economic activity for fishing communities and healthy food for Californians. Not only have state and federal agencies failed to meet the doubling goal, salmon have fallen well below the alarming levels they were at when the goal was established. This legal mandate has been ignored.

But it is the recent drought, and the political backlash it has spawned, that has made things look particularly bleak for this iconic California fishery. From 2007 to 2009, California experienced three back-to-back dry years, limiting available water supplies.

The Department of Water Resources and the Bureau of Reclamation have repeatedly stated that three-quarters of recent water cutbacks were due to the drought and that eliminating environmental protections would do little to change the water supply picture.

Unfortunately, the facts have been washed away in a flood of misinformation and hyperbole from commentator Sean Hannity and others placing virtually all of the Central Valley’s economic problems on the backs, or fins, of salmon and other fish. Contempt for native salmon was also clear in a Central Valley congressman’s recent assertion on TV station KMPH that the “supposed fishing industry” had not suffered despite the two-year fishing closure. Despite clear scientific evidence, water users south of the delta have filed suits challenging protections designed to prevent extinctions for salmon, steelhead and other fish.

Today, the fate of California’s salmon rests in several interconnected rooms: a federal court in Fresno, the halls of Congress and around conference tables in Sacramento. In 2008, the court threw out a Bush administration plan to allow higher levels of export pumping because doing so could cause the extinction of some salmon runs.

On Feb. 5, the same court blocked protections in the newly revised plan, known as a biological opinion, ruling that the pumping limits needed for salmon were too restrictive. Increased delta pumping almost immediately resulted in a growing number of other fish killed at the pumps, and the court reversed course again. Last week, Sen. Dianne Feinstein indicated that she would consider whether to legislatively modify the salmon protections for several years in order to increase water deliveries to the Central Valley.

Separately, the state of California has been holding meetings for more than three years to come up with a long-term solution to the problem of ecological and water supply conflicts in the bay and delta. Known as the Bay Delta Conservation Plan process, this effort has yet to establish or commit to recovery standards for salmon or other ecological assets. Some water users insist that the primary outcome must be still higher water diversions from the bay and delta.

Many of the key stakeholders in this process are the very parties arguing in federal court against basic safety-net protections for the very salmon runs that the process is supposed to restore. Indeed, the state of California has intervened in the federal litigation seeking to throw out its own salmon protections. It’s hard to figure out how the state can restore delta fisheries as required by law while simultaneously seeking to relax protections.

New state legislation, however, has given renewed hope for California’s salmon fishing heritage. First, the State Water Resources Control Board is working, as mandated by this legislation, to determine how much water is required in the delta to protect salmon and other resources. These new laws also created a Delta Stewardship Council to write a comprehensive plan for the delta. Both of these efforts should make the restoration of salmon – and other bay-delta fish – a top priority.

Ecosystems are complex, and no doubt other factors in addition to water exports are at work in the precipitous decline of salmon and other bay-delta fishes. However, the vast weight of scientific evidence points to the basic fact that adequate and reliable environmental water flows are necessary – if not sufficient – for sustainable salmon runs. Water is not the entire solution, but there is no solution for salmon without it.

Cynthia Koehler is the California water legislative director with the Environmental Defense Fund. Barry Nelson is a senior policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council.