Competing uses for water in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta watershed are putting the great salmon runs of California’s Central Valley in danger of disappearing. Two of the four seasonal salmon runs are already listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Water diversion for agricultural irrigation and other purposes is more than the Delta can sustain and it is having a devastating impact on recreational salmon fishing and businesses that depend on that fishery. As a result, the region’s salmon fishing seasons were completely shut down in 2008 and 2009. Though open, the fall-run salmon fishing season in recent years was severely curtailed.
Without major changes in Delta and upriver water management, California’s Central Valley salmon fisheries are headed for collapse. The environmental implications of this potential collapse will be devastating to the Delta and its human inhabitants. Despite the extreme environmental consequences of over-pumping, private interests, notably the San Joaquin Valley agricultural water contractors, are attempting to control even more of the public’s water.
On July 16, 2015, the House passed H.R. 2898, a bill sponsored by Rep. Valadao (D-Calif.) that would contribute to the demise of all four runs of salmon. ASA opposes HR 2898 because it would weaken protections for salmon in favor of the agricultural industry. In doing so, it ignores the social, economic and ecological benefits of the salmon fishery to the surrounding communities if the San-Joaquin River delta was restored and water allocations were sustainably and equitably managed.
In February, Sen. Feinstein (D-Calif.) introduced a bill – the California Long-Term Provisions for Water Supply and Short-Term Provisions for Emergency Drought Relief Act (S. 2533). Later, Rep. Garamendi (D-Calif.) introduced companion legislation in the House. ASA opposes the bill because it goes too far in compromising environmental protections for Chinook salmon and seeks to eliminate other important bass species that are a boon to the state economy.
The livelihoods of thousands of commercial and recreational fishermen, fishing guides, tackle shops, and communities across California and along the West Coast depend on robust salmon fisheries. ASA is aware that, despite the many stakeholder groups, agricultural interests have prevailed in previous instances of water allocation during drought. We are concerned that written protections for fisheries in the Sacramento- San Joaquin watershed are too frequently undermined, slighting the social, economic and environmental benefits of conservation. The dry conditions that are causing low water supplies are placing a hardship on many and it is important that balanced solutions be sought. ASA is opposed to legislation, such as the California emergency Drought Relief Act of 2014,that seeks to evade federal salmon protections. Overturning the provisions of the Endangered Species Act and decimating a major fishery sets a dangerous precedent and threatens natural resources nationwide.
There is obvious interest in Congress to pass legislation to address the ongoing Western-state drought, so ASA is staying engaged in the issue.
Historically, Northern California’s Sacramento and San Joaquin River watersheds provided ideal habitat to support large populations of salmon and steelhead trout. These salmon runs were second only to those of the Columbia River in the lower 48 states. Despite the construction of dams on most major rivers, most salmon populations continued to flourish. That is, until California began to divert large quantities of water from these rivers in the 1990s. Population growth and over expansion of agriculture put higher water demands on the Delta than it could sustain, with only eight percent of salmon and steelhead smolts able to survive the extreme changes when freshwater exports are at their highest.
State and federal water pumping projects export millions of acre-feet of fresh water from the Delta each year for agricultural irrigation and municipal projects. At times this diversion is so high that it actually reverses the flows of Old and Middle Rivers, two of the rivers that flow north into the Delta. Despite the extreme environmental consequences of over-pumping, private interests, namely the agricultural water contractors of the San Joaquin Valley, are attempting to control even more of the public’s water. Millions of dollars have been spent on lawsuits and campaigns to increase agricultural water rights. Not all of this water is being used to irrigate crops. Some contractors are selling their allocations for profit – i.e., selling a public resource at the expense of recreational fisherman and local communities.
To mitigate the impacts of high volume pumping rates, fishery managers closed the salmon fishing season in 2008 and 2009 and severely curtailed the 2010 season. Despite fishery closures, the region’s salmon populations will not be able to recover until water management deficiencies are properly addressed.
The economic and social impacts of the salmon population crash and the closed fishing seasons are severe. An estimated 23,000 jobs were lost as a result of the closed 2009 season alone. For many of the region’s coastal communities, the recreational salmon fishing industry is the number one contributor to their economy. An economic study estimated a negative impact to California’s economy of $1.4 billion for each year that the season is closed.
While a deal in Congress remains imminent, winter-run Chinook salmon hang in the balance. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife took steps to protect the run and approved emergency regulations that took effect on April 27, 2015. The measures temporarily close 5.5 miles of spawning habitat in the upper Sacramento River and reduce the allowable ocean harvest for sport and commercial fisheries. The Pacific Management Fishery Council adopted equivalent protections in federal waters for saltwater salmon fishing. ASA accepts the changes and has been working with conservation and sportfishing partner groups in California to identify ways to sustain the state’s salmon while maintaining public access.
The Delta and upriver conditions must improve to ecologically sustainable conditions in order to recover the salmon and steelhead populations of the Central Valley. The Fish and Wildlife Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are required to evaluate any project that may impact ESA-listed fish and issue a biological opinion, which serves to minimize any adverse effects to the species and its habitat.
In 2009, the federal government released new biological opinions for the two ESA listed runs (winter and spring), as well as other endangered species, that reduced pumping rates and corrected upriver habitat conditions for these fish. However, this did very little for the other, non-ESA listed runs. If all four runs are to be recovered, more change is needed. Agricultural interests have filed 13 lawsuits in an attempt to overturn the biological opinions. These lawsuits are being led by the California Department of Water Resources.
In 2007, the San Joaquin Valley water contractors initiated a Bay Delta Habitat Conservation Plan (BDCP) under the Endangered Species Act. The project is intended to undertake Delta restoration and conservation actions, while allowing construction of a new water diversion canal around the Delta. The State of California and the Department of Interior are now fast tracking the canal construction, but disregarding the conservation actions that would be needed to restore salmon and other impacted species. The salmon industry and conservation groups are strongly protesting this imbalance. The project should not proceed until an adequate conservation program is developed and funded.
In early 2014, the House introduced an onerous bill (H.R. 4039 – California Emergency Drought Relief Act of 2014), which would virtually wipe out all protections for salmon. The Senate also passed a water bill authored by Sen. Feinstein (S. 2198). These bills entered into conference in November, meaning both chambers would work together to combine the two bills into one, but a month later Sen. Feinstein postponed further action.
Negotiations geared back up in both chambers in the 114th Congress to address the drought. On July 16, 2015, the House passed H.R. 2898, a bill sponsored by Rep. Valadao (D-Calif.) that would contribute to the demise of all four runs of salmon. ASA opposes H.R. 2898 because it would weaken protections for salmon in favor of industrial agriculture. In doing so, it ignores the social, economic, and ecological benefits of the salmon fishery to the surrounding communities if the San-Joaquin River Delta was restored and water allocations were sustainably and equitably managed.
The House of Representatives held two hearings in early 2016 in the Natural Resources subcommittee on Water, Power, and Oceans related to drought in California. One addressed the impacts of predation on native and endangered fish species and the second looked at the outlook of the California water supply during three years of restricted water deliveries and dry conditions.
Later in July, Sens. Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Boxer (D-Calif.) introduced separate legislation – S. 1894 – to address the issues arising from the ongoing drought in California. The sportfishing community supports this bill, with stipulations, and is working with the Senate on improvements. Specifically, ASA disagrees with provisions in both bills that target “non-native predators” for eradication as a means to protect juvenile salmon. In fact, predation is a natural part of the ecosystem. Non-native predators, such as several bass species, have mutually thrived alongside salmon for over a century, and research has shown that predation is a low-level concern that does not significantly affect the survival of Central Valley salmon populations.
The Pacific Marine Fishery Council, at the request, of Reps. Thompson and Huffman (D-Calif.), submitted to Congress an analysis of the aforementioned H.R. 2898 and S.1894 as well as a third bill, H.R. 2983 authored by Rep. Huffman, in November of 2015.
The Council did another review of the most recent California drought bill lead by Sen. Feinstein. In February 2016, Sen. Feinstein introduced the California Long-Term Provisions for Water Supply and Short-Term Provisions for Emergency Drought Relief Act (S. 2533). Later, Rep. Garamendi (D-Calif.) introduced companion legislation in the House (H.R. 5247). ASA believes the bill goes too far in compromising environmental protections for Chinook salmon and seeks to eliminate other important bass species that are a boon to the state economy.
In April, more than 200 sportfishing businesses from Alaska to California sent a letter to Senate Environment and Public Works Committee leadership and Sen. Boxer regarding S. 2533. By sending more water south for big agricultural operations, the bill sidesteps environmental protections for threatened species and ignores the impact the fishing industry has suffered as a result of low salmon survival rates and a closed fishing season in recent years.
In fact, federal regulators announced new restrictions for California’s 2016 recreational and commercial Chinook salmon fishing season. In response to dry, warm river conditions and few numbers of salmon reaching the ocean, the Pacific Fishery Management Council decided to take precaution and cut fishing opportunities by half for both sectors. Though anglers have reported decent fishing offshore so far this year, they are understanding of the decision but no less concerned, as the salmon restrictions immediately follow a shortened crab season. Data from the National Marine Fisheries Service showing that salmon in the San Joaquin and Sacramento River Deltas have further declined because of low water levels and rising water temperatures.
There is strong interest in Congress to pass legislation to address the ongoing Western-state drought. ASA continues to work with its California partners to find a path forward to save Central Valley salmon during this volatile period.