California preps for catastrophic summer salmon slaughter

Warming temperatures threaten an entire run of Chinook salmon, which California officials blame on drought, climate change and a Trump-era water policy.

Nick Cahill / July 27, 2021

Chinook salmon swim in warming rivers

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — Facing another summer of catastrophic fish kills, California lawmakers and fisheries managers on Tuesday blamed a Trump-era water policy and climate change for the sizzling water temperatures threatening to erase an entire run of Chinook salmon.

“We’re witnessing the collapse of this iconic species right in front of our eyes,” said state Senator Mike McGuire, a Democrat from Santa Rosa.

Chinook salmon die-offs on the state’s rivers have happened routinely over the last two decades. But a pending disaster on the Sacramento and Klamath rivers has elected officials, regulators, Native American tribes and fishermen scrambling to save the keystone species from extinction.

McGuire, whose massive district spans from the San Francisco Bay Area to the Oregon border, opened a legislative hearing Tuesday by railing on a water management plan still in place from the Trump administration. He said the controversial carryover policy signed in early 2020 has allowed the federal government to store less cold water for fish at the behest of farmers located hundreds of miles south in the state’s Central Valley.

The emergency hearing was precipitated by a stunning update made earlier this month by the state’s fisheries managers regarding the health of endangered salmon in the Sacramento River system.ADVERTISEMENT

“This persistent heat dome over the West Coast will likely result in earlier loss of ability to provide cool water and subsequently, it is possible that all in-river juveniles will not survive this season,” the California Department of Fish and Wildlife advised.

The agency went on to explain that the federal government and state’s supply of cold water needed to keep water temperatures in the state’s largest river habitable for salmon was vanishing quicker than expected. Without adequate cold water in Shasta Lake — currently at 33% of capacity — both the feds and state warned it couldn’t keep the Sacramento River habitable for endangered Chinook salmon.

Salmon eggs and juveniles are typically able to survive California’s hot summers thanks to cool temperatures on the river bottom, but the drought and water deliveries made to farmers already this year have reduced the chances of the in-river salmon making it to the ocean slim to none. Experts predict 2021 could be worse than 2015, when just 3% of winter-run Chinook eggs and fry survived in similar conditions.  

The chair of the Joint Committee on Fisheries and Aquaculture said the Trump administration’s decision has hastened the salmon’s demise.

“Just being honest about it, this is a legacy of the Trump administration,” McGuire said.

While the state continues to fight the feds in court over rules governing how much water can be taken from the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, the director of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife told the committee climate change is also complicating things.

Director Chuck Bonham said that while the Biden administration appears open to discussing the carryover policy, he’s concerned the current drought will do permanent damage to the Chinook and other salmonids.

“What worries me greatly is our species…are losing the ability to recover,” Bonham testified.

Bonham fell short of saying it was certain there would be a complete loss of juvenile salmon this year, but acknowledged the possibility exists as reservoirs continue to run out of supplies used to manage downstream river temperatures.

Offering a bit of good news, Bonham highlighted mitigation efforts the state has already taken to save endangered fish.

Over the last few months, the state has trucked 17 million salmon from hatcheries directly to the ocean, moved fish to more suitable hatcheries and rescued wild fish from stagnant river pools. But Bonham acknowledged the emergency actions aren’t a sound long-term strategy.    

“I’m more worried to be honest as we head into next year; our standard methods of evaluation aren’t keeping up with these cascading climate effects,” Bonham said soberly.

The nearly four-hour hearing also featured testimony from groups being directly affected by the deteriorating water conditions.

Yurok Tribe Chairman Joseph James said warm water and algae blooms on the Klamath River are already killing salmon in the extreme northwestern portion of the state. As its main source of food, James said the mismanagement of the river is violating the tribe’s sovereign rights.

“We experienced heavy [salmon] death in the main stream from the deadly disease C. shasta and no water was available to help,” James said. “We are in a crisis and full-blown emergency here in the Klamath basin.”

Others contended the state can’t pin the unfolding ecological disaster solely on the feds and global warming and should consult with tribal leaders on future water policy.  

“Give the tribes a seat at the table so we can bring in tribal ecological knowledge,” said Karuk Tribe chairman Russell Attebery. 

Fishing and environmental groups were given the last word Tuesday and they too shifted blame toward the state.

Warm temperatures and low flows have forced licensed fishing guides to abandon California at certain points of the year just to make a living, said James Stone of Nor-Cal Guides and Sportsmen’s Association. He cast the inland fishing industry as collapsing and urged lawmakers to pass relief for affected fishing guides.

“A lot of my guides are in Alaska right now, just trying to pay their mortgage and do anything they can,” said Stone. “They are unable to fish in our local waters because of the water conditions.”  

Perhaps the strongest criticism came from Kate Poole, senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council. She argued the salmon’s plight was preventable and blasted the state’s drought regulator for not pushing back in recent months on the feds’ management of the Sacramento River watershed.

Poole added the state should ditch the “20th century pattern of thinking” when it comes to water and improve alternative methods like wastewater recycling and urban stormwater capture.

“This high death rate is not inevitable nor the result of a natural disaster that caught us by surprise,” Poole said. “It’s instead primarily due to mismanagement of our water system, including a failure to plan for predictable and recurring droughts as well as the choice to prioritize water deliveries to big agribusiness over protecting salmon.”