Updated September 2017
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. Water diversion for agricultural irrigation and municipal projects, reservoir release practices and mismanagement of river flows are taking a heavy toll on salmon populations and having a devastating impact on recreational salmon fishing and businesses that depend on that fishery. Two of the four seasonal salmon runs are already listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Only one run of California Chinook salmon remains healthy enough to provide for a fishery. And though open, the fall-run salmon fishing season in recent years has been severely curtailed. Without major changes in Delta and upriver water management, California’s Central Valley salmon fisheries are headed for collapse.
The four-year severe drought that began in 2012 in California wiped out nearly all of the wild juvenile salmon out-migration in 2014 and 2015. The impact will be felt first in 2017, however, recent heavy precipitation in California has already recharged reservoirs and will help ease tensions for the time being, but, several issues may reignite the challenges.
These include provisions of the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act (WIIN), passed in December 2016, and other introduced legislation such as the Gaining Responsibility for Water Act of 2017 (H.R. 23), which would reallocate water for farmers and water districts and not for salmon. During his presidential campaign, Donald Trump voiced support for giving Central Valley farmers more water, and in a number of areas it is expected the Trump Administration will seek to roll back ESA protections.
Historically, Northern California's Sacramento and San Joaquin River watersheds provided ideal habitat to support large populations of salmon and steelhead trout. 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 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. Only 8 percent of salmon and steelhead smolts can survive such extreme changes when freshwater exports are at their highest.
State and federal water pumping projects export millions of acre-feet of freshwater 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, continuously attempt 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.
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. For decades, ASA and Northern California salmon stakeholder organizations have strongly advocated for public policies that would halt salmon population declines and restore Central Valley fish such as Water4Fish.
In 2007, San Joaquin Valley water contractors initiated a Bay Delta Habitat Conservation Plan under the ESA. 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 canal construction but disregarding the conservation actions that would be needed to restore salmon and other affected species. The salmon industry, ASA and conservation groups strongly oppose this imbalance. The project should not proceed until an adequate conservation program is developed and funded, taking into account the 2007 plan.
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 were 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.
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 (unfortunately, however, this did very little for the other, non-ESA-listed runs). Agricultural interests filed 13 lawsuits in an attempt to overturn the biological opinions. These lawsuits are being led by the California Department of Water Resources.
In 2012, California began to experience severe drought conditions that ended up lasting for 4 years.
In early 2014, the U.S. House of Representatives introduced the California Emergency Drought Relief Act of 2014 (H.R. 4039), which would have virtually wiped out all protections for salmon. Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) also authored a water bill, (S. 2198). These bills entered into conference in November, meaning both chambers worked together to combine the two bills into one, but a month later, Sen. Feinstein postponed further action.
The following year, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife took steps to protect the winter-run Chinook salmon and approved emergency regulations that took effect in April 2015. The measures temporarily closed 5.5 miles of spawning habitat in the upper Sacramento River and reduced the allowable ocean harvest for recreational and commercial fisheries. The Pacific Management Fishery Council adopted equivalent protections in federal waters for saltwater salmon fishing. ASA worked with partners to identify ways to conserve salmon while maintaining fishing opportunities.
Also in 2015, negotiations geared back up in both chambers of Congress to address impacts of the drought. In July 2015, the House passed H.R. 2898, a bill sponsored by Rep. David Valadao (D-Calif.), that would contribute to the demise of all four runs of salmon. ASA opposed H.R. 2898 because it would weaken protections for salmon in favor of industrial agriculture.
Later in July 2015, Sens. Feinstein and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) introduced separate drought-related legislation, S. 1894. ASA and the sportfishing community supported this bill, with stipulations, and worked with the Senate on improvements. Specifically, ASA disagreed with provisions in both bills that target “non-native predators” for eradication as a means to protect juvenile salmon. (Research has shown that bass predation does not significantly affect salmon survival.
In November 2015, the Pacific Marine Fishery Council, at the request of Reps. Mike Thompson and Jared 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. The Council also did another review of Sen. Feinstein’s most recent California drought bill.
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. John Garamendi (D-Calif.) introduced companion legislation in the House (H.R. 5247). ASA opposed the bill because it went too far in compromising environmental protections for salmon and sought to eliminate other important bass species that are also an important sportfishery and a boon to the state economy.
In April 2016, more than 200 sportfishing businesses from Alaska to California sent a letter to the leaders of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and Sen. Boxer regarding S. 2533. By sending more water south for big agricultural operations, the bill sidestepped environmental protections for ESA-listed species and ignored the hardships the fishing industry has experienced as a result of low salmon survival and closed fishing seasons in recent years.
When, 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 adequate fishing offshore 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 shows that salmon in the San Joaquin and Sacramento River Deltas have further declined because of low water levels and rising water temperatures.
In December 2016, the Senate passed and President Obama signed a comprehensive maritime infrastructure bill, the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act, drawing a mixed reaction from the recreational fishing industry because of language specific to California salmon.
ASA supported many elements in the bill, including the Water Resources Development Act. From ASA’s perspective, the WIIN Act contains many positive, important authorizations ranging from habitat restoration projects to marine transportation infrastructure. For example, an important element of the bill to the recreational fishing industry is a $1.95 billion authorization for the Central Everglades Planning Project (CEPP) and $113 million for Picayune Strand water flow restoration.
However, during late-stage negotiations in the House, a provision intended to address ongoing drought problems in California was attached that would weaken protections for salmon and other fish. This language calls for diversion of water away from fisheries that are already struggling, puts wild salmon in jeopardy of extinction and targets other sportfish for eradication. Working with its state and national partners, ASA organized a major push to defeat the inclusion of this language, but ultimately it passed as part of the larger bill. ASA commended Sens. Boxer, Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and the Northwest delegation for their efforts to defeat this last-minute water grab for agriculture.
In February 2017, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and other Members, including Rep. Valadao, introduced the Gaining Responsibility for Water Act of 2017 (H.R. 23). The bill seeks to go even further in reallocating water for farmers and water districts and not for salmon and endangered aquatic species. ASA is working with its partners to stop this legislation from passing.