Making a Future for Fish: Preserving and Restoring Native Salmon and Trout
California’s native salmon and trout are in trouble. Driven down by more than a century of adverse impacts caused by development coupled with a changing climate, salmon and trout populations have dwindled to a fraction of their historic numbers. The crash is evident in many areas, none more so than the collapse of the West Coast salmon fishery in 2008. With the fish plummeting to record low numbers, federal officials for the first time closed all commercial and sport fishing off the coast of California and most of Oregon.
Veteran observers called the closure a disaster, given the economic impact on the commercial fishery. California officials said the closure would cause an estimated $255 million economic impact and the loss of more than 2,000 jobs.
Native fish for years have struggled to survive under less than optimal conditions, beginning with the fact that a large portion of their traditional spawning habitat has been blocked by dams. Water diversions and Delta pumping have taken their toll as well. According to a January news article, a pending Biological Opinion of water operations by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) suggests that the Northern California water system that collects, stores and ships water to the rest of the state fails to provide the cold water salmon need to spawn in the Sacramento River, a predicament that could worsen for the fish as climate change affects the timing and amount of snow and rain.
Through the years, state and federal agencies have responded with mitigation efforts such as fish ladders, hatcheries and more. Salmon populations have fluctuated, with some years revealing impressive numbers of fish followed by steep declines caused by drought and other conditions.
But the decline of wild species has continued. “Despite concerted, large-scale conservation initiatives in the United States and Canada, beginning in the 1930s, we have been unable to slow the decline of wild salmon populations in the southern portion of their range,” states a 2005 report by the Wild Salmon Center in Portland, Ore.
The downward trend leads to a public policy debate about which further remedies should be pursued to restore fish – a rigorous and controversial pursuit that requires an analysis of scientific data, economics, the competition for natural resources and the extent of environmental management.
“No one is against saving wild salmon, but most people also have other priorities, many of which are not the same as those of salmon,” said Robert Lackey, senior fisheries biologist with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) National Health and Environmental Effects Research Laboratory in Corvallis, Ore. “Given the appreciable costs and social dislocation, coupled with the dubious probability of success, candid public dialogue is warranted to decide whether restoration of wild salmon is an appropriate, much less feasible, public policy objective.”
Fish restoration efforts in California got a boost in 1992 through the Central Valley Project Improvement Act (CVPIA), which established a fund that has been used to help fish impacted by the operations of the CVP. The CVPIA has led to several major restoration projects, such as the Shasta Dam Temperature Control Device, Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District Fish Screen Project, rehabilitation of the Coleman National Fish Hatchery in Redding and the fish passage facilities on Butte Creek in the upper Sacramento Valley. (See page 9). The net effect helped boost the numbers of the fish addressed in the CVPIA – by the mid-1990s numbers of fall-run Chinook salmon neared 800,000.
“When we made more water available for Central California Chinook salmon in the 1990s, and made other changes to better protect salmon habitat, their numbers rebounded,” noted Fish Out of Water, a 2008 report by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
Officials have high hopes for the Battle Creek Salmon and Steelhead Restoration Project, which aims to reestablish about 42 miles of prime salmon and steelhead habitat on Battle Creek in Shasta and Tehama counties. According to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation), the creek is “one of the most important anadromous fish spawning streams in the Sacramento Valley” that can be improved for fish through modified instream flows, the removal of some diversion dams and the installation of fish ladders and screens at others.
Fish proponents are hopeful about the chances of renewed habitat in the Klamath River Basin in the wake of an announced agreement by the federal government, the states of California and Oregon and PacifiCorp that presents a scenario for possible removal of the hydroelectric dams starting in 2020, after a four-year period of study. Dam removal “would put the river’s legendary salmon and steelhead runs on the road to recovery, and would help end decades-long disputes over river management in the basin,” according to the conservation group American Rivers.
Farther south, the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) in 2010 expects to complete its environmental analysis of the proposed Bay Delta Conservation Plan, an attempt to protect at-risk species such as the salmon while improving the water supply reliability in what is the hub of the state’s water supply system.“The Delta is a great natural treasure and a vital link in the state’s water system, but it is teetering on the edge of collapse,” said DWR Director Lester Snow. “To avert an ecological disaster and ensure reliable water supplies for Californians now and in the future, we must act now.”
Despite the efforts taken to protect and restore salmon, trout and steelhead, the advocacy group California Trout recently warned that under existing conditions, 65 percent of native salmon, steelhead and trout species will be extinct within 100 years, an “unprecedented decline.” California Trout’s report is a based on Salmon, Steelhead and Trout in California: Status of an Emblematic Fauna, a two-year, technical report commissioned for the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California, Davis.
“We have gotten ourselves into a real pickle over the years,” said Peter Moyle, professor of fish biology at UC Davis and lead author of the report. “In addition to dams and diversions, we pollute with new pesticides, excess nutrients from sewage treatment plants and agriculture, and toxic stormwater flows from cities. Then we get a drought and that stresses the fish even further.”
The report says the southernmost populations of salmon, steelhead, and trout are “in deep trouble” and that the fish are “strong indicators of the condition of California’s streams; large self-sustaining populations of native salmon and trout are found where streams are in reasonably good condition.”
Given the number of fish runs already listed as threatened or endangered, the report’s findings “shouldn’t have been a surprise,” Moyle said. Overall, the study revealed how many of the fish analyzed were “right on the edge” of extinction. “We are pretty lucky that more haven’t gone over the brink,” he said.
The UC Davis report notes “current lists of threatened and endangered species do not reflect the true condition of California salmonids,” and that “our perception from previous work was that most [fish] were not being monitored as closely as they should be, even the listed forms.” Recovery is possible through the reinstatement of flows, the removal of fish migration barriers and plenty of “cool, clean” water. Enforcement of existing laws is important and toward that end California Trout calls for a “revitalized and strengthened” Department of Fish and Game (DFG) to pursue its role as “chief guardian” of the state’s endangered fish.
The findings come as several aspects of water policy in California are being discussed, including the prospects of a new water bond, the Delta Vision process and the recommendation to build a peripheral canal, and the controversy surrounding the environmental impacts of the operations of the State Water Project (SWP) and the CVP. Exporting water from the Delta “has required changes to the operation of upstream reservoirs, which reduces the cold, clean water needed for salmon to migrate and spawn,” NRDC’s Fish Out of Water report says.
The impacts of Delta pumping have been the basis of several lawsuits brought by environmentalists. U.S. District Court Judge Oliver Wanger in 2007 ruled that federal scientists did not use the best available science and “failed to adequately find and address the impacts of joint project operations on the continued survival of the Delta smelt.” He ordered a reduction in pumping operations until the completion of a new scientific assessment (Biological Opinion), which was released Dec. 15, 2008 (see In the News). In 2008 Wanger found that the protections for salmon were also insufficient and that project operations through March 2009 (when the revised guidelines are due) “will appreciably increase jeopardy” to the Sacramento River winter-run Chinook salmon, the Central Valley spring-run Chinook salmon and the Central Valley steelhead. The final Biological Opinion is due in March.
This issue of Western Water examines the native salmon and trout dilemma – the extent of the crisis, its potential impact on water deliveries and the lengths to which combined efforts can help restore threatened and endangered species.
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Water Infrastructure and President Obama
“No nation has attained or maintained greatness without a strong water infrastructure,” writes Gerald Galloway. Former U.S. Army Corps of Engineer Gen. Galloway is best known for his report after the great Midwestern Flood of 1993 in which he recommended changing the way we manage floodplains. Now a professor of engineering at the University of Maryland, in a recent article in Southwest Hydrology magazine, he recommended that President Obama and members of Congress work on the nation’s aging water infrastructure.
Of course, everyone is giving advice to the new President on how to spend money and we in the water world are no exception. Along with me, you also have probably read many articles and listened to news programs recommending that infrastructure be a big part of the stimulus package.
However, when Gerry Galloway talks, I listen. In a report he issued last year, he called flooding in California’s Central Valley “the next big disaster waiting to happen.” He said California levees face significant risk of floods that could cost billions of dollars in damages. In his advice letter to President Obama, he is warning that if we ignore water infrastructure and leave it for a future date, we risk creating crises that equal recent challenges over fiscal stability and national security. He notes that the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) produces a report card every few years on the status of the country’s infrastructure that continues to report failing grades and increased cost for the necessary maintenance and upgrades.
Another voice calling for upgraded infrastructure is former Coast Guard commander and author Steven Flynn. Writing in The Edge of Disaster: Rebuilding a Resilient Nation and America the Vulnerable, the former advisory to the Commission on National Security urges the public to wake up to the fact that old infrastructures are ripe targets for places prone to natural and terrorist-caused disasters. He notes that one of every tax dollar spent on preparation and maintenance saves $7 in reaction costs to catastrophes like Katrina.
Structures like roads and bridges have a life span of about 50 years. On my return from a personal trip to China a couple years ago, I saw California’s infrastructure – roads, railways and bridges – with new eyes. After seeing all the new bridges and roads in China, I was struck by the seemingly oldness of our systems. It seemed to me we were living in a time of 40 or more years ago.
Other ideas involving water infrastructure are being floated. Pat Mulroy, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, boldly has suggested building the largest water diversion project in American history. It would involve capturing floodwaters from the Mississippi River and using it to recharge the massive Ogallala Aquifer beneath the Plains states. Then, in turn, water could be transferred and exchanged – getting more water into the Colorado River for basin users.
Our water infrastructure should provide safe, clean water for agricultural, environmental, municipal and industrial uses. And since climate change is affecting the frequency of floods and droughts, our infrastructure should plan for that future. History has shown that Gerry Galloway is right when he says, “little glory is given to those who take care of infrastructure business.” Let’s hope as part of this financial crisis, the President and Congress fund useful projects and make the right decisions on water infrastructure. Those improvements can help our country in many ways.
In the News
Scientists Say Reduced Delta Pumping Necessary to Protect Smelt
Federal scientists in December released a new set of guidelines to protect Delta smelt that would trim state and federal water exports by more than one-third under certain circumstances to keep the tiny fish from becoming extinct.
Six million acre-feet of water is pumped annually from the Central Valley Project (CVP) and the State Water Project (SWP) Delta pumping plants, 3 million acre-feet in a dry year, according to state officials. Biologists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) say continued operation of both projects “is likely to jeopardize the continued existence of the Delta smelt and adversely modify its critical habitat.” The Biological Opinion establishes the parameters by which water must be released from upstream reservoirs and how it is pumped from the Delta to avoid harm to the smelt.
Environmentalists, whose lawsuit led to the overturning of the previous Biological Opinion and an ordered reduction of Delta pumping in 2008, welcomed the revised document.
“We are delighted that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has finally recognized that we have reached the limits of how much water can be pumped out of the Delta without causing the complete collapse of the Delta ecosystem and all the creatures that depend upon a healthy Delta for their survival – including people,” said Mike Sherwood, an attorney with Earthjustice.
State water officials criticized the report as overreaching and not taking into account the other circumstances that are causing the decline of the tiny fish. They are particularly concerned about what could happen to pumping operations during dry years. Lester Snow, director of the Department of Water Resources, said the cumulative impacts could be a 50 percent reduction of water exports compared to pre-2007 levels. Pumping was limited in 2008 after a federal judge ordered cutbacks to protect the smelt.
“Fifty percent is a significant impact and our concern is its effectiveness for the protection of smelt,” he said at a Dec. 17 news conference. “One of our issues is the lack of a comprehensive approach on this. We know there are many stressors, and that while exports are a part, it’s not the only issue.”
In a Dec. 16 letter to state officials, Sen. Dianne Feinstein said she “strongly believes that a comprehensive regulatory approach is the only option to both restore the Delta ecosystem and achieve a reliable supply of water” and that restricting exports alone “will do nothing to eliminate other stresses” to the Delta.
Snow said the range of impacts from the opinion go from the “optimistic” end of a 20 percent reduction to the high end of a 50 percent reduction in delivery capability. He bemoaned the single-species driven approach that he and others say does not address the needs of the Delta environment overall. “We need a much more comprehensive approach in dealing with this,” he said. “We need to find the kinds of actions that protect the smelt and minimize the economic impact.”
Doug Obegi, staff attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the opinion will require the state and federal water projects to operate “in a more environmentally sustainable manner that better protects Delta smelt, salmon and the fishermen and farmers who depend on healthy fisheries and clean water.”