Too little water for salmon in state board’s proposal

By Paul Johnson
December 9, 2016
Updated: December 11, 2016

I’ve been selling wild king salmon to some of the Bay Area’s most noted restaurants and home cooks for almost 40 years — when our local king (chinook) salmon are in season, my clients clamor for it. So I was happily surprised when, in mid-September, the State Water Resources Control Board released a draft water quality control plan it claimed would help restore wild salmon populations.

The draft plan proposed to protect some of the San Joaquin River’s flow during the winter and spring, when juvenile salmon are rearing in the river and migrating to the ocean. Speaking to the need for this change, the state water board’s chairperson, Felicia Marcus, acknowledged:“We’ve simply diverted too much water for fish to be able to survive.”

That observation is certainly true. The largest populations of chinook salmon in the state were once found on the San Joaquin River and its main tributaries, the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers. Every year, hundreds of thousands of these majestic fish would return to the San Joaquin’s watershed to spawn in the southern Central Valley and Sierra, providing jobs, supporting the local economy and ensuring delicious eating. That reliable natural abundance came to an end after a spasm of dam construction was completed in the late 1970s — just about when I began my career as a fishmonger at San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf.

But, salmon are hardy fish and we know they can still thrive in our rivers if we leave them enough water. Despite the fact that dams and diversions on the San Joaquin and its tributaries take on average more than two-thirds of the water and as much as 90 percent in dry years, these rivers and their salmon will spring back to life if given the chance. The Chronicle’s project on California seafood production (“Seafood’s new normal,” Oct. 30) reported that 3.78 million pounds of chinook salmon were harvested in 2013 — most of these fish migrated out of Central Valley rivers during 2011, our last wet year. But two years later, the harvest declined by almost 70 percent as a result of devastating water management decisions that killed juvenile salmon in our rivers during 2013.

California salmon is a culinary icon we cannot afford to lose. The effects on salmon production of removing too much water from Central Valley rivers are felt by fishing communities along the California and Oregon coasts and by consumers throughout the West. But the state water board’s draft plan does not safeguard enough of the San Joaquin’s flow to restore the fishery. The water board’s proposed plan leaves just 40 percent or less of the flow in the San Joaquin River between February and June while its own research shows that at least 50 to 60 percent of the winter-spring flow in the watershed is needed to maintain fish populations and water quality.

The water board is required to strike a balance among beneficial uses of the state’s freshwater. Salmon, fishing communities, fish consumers, delta farmers and all Californians who benefit from clean water would welcome re-establishing a balance that was abandoned decades ago. The solution to decades of abusing our rivers and fisheries can’t be a “compromise” that still leaves too little water to support our fisheries or clean water. There is a middle ground in California’s perpetual water tug-of-war, but nothing less than 50 percent of the San Joaquin’s flow will give salmon a chance.

We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do something really good for salmon, the Bay Area environment and our economy. The actions we take on the San Joaquin River will influence the board’s coming decisions on the Sacramento River. These decisions will affect the health of the entire bay-delta ecosystem — from the upper watershed to the Gulf of the Farallones. If we do the right thing, future generations will thank us for it.

I am encouraged that the state water board finally recognizes its responsibility to protect the public’s interest in flowing rivers and vibrant fish populations. Now it must use the best information available to re-establish a balance between reasonable municipal and agricultural uses of water and the interests up and down the California and Oregon coasts of fishermen, fish consumers and businesses — like mine — that supply them. Bay Area residents should write to State Water Resources Control Board members and let them know that we’re willing to conserve water if all San Joaquin water users pitch in to bring the state’s second-longest river back to life.

Paul Johnson has operated Monterey Fish Market in San Francisco since its founding in 1979. He is the author of a cookbook, “Fish Forever, The Definitive Guide to Understanding, Selecting, and Preparing Healthy, Delicious, and Environmentally Sustainable Seafood.” To comment, submit your letter to the editor at