DiFi to Fish Agencies: Allow Fish Kill, Relax Water Quality -- Bailout Water Profiteers

12:04 PM on April 11, 2014


Photo by Dr. Jon Rosenfield, The Bay Institute

In the last month, federal and state agencies that are charged with protecting our environment, its endangered species, and our clean water have caved in to political pressure from elected officials – including, most prominently, Senator Dianne Feinstein -- to provide more subsidized water to a small group of wealthy farmers. The damage to our fish and wildlife, including six endangered species that rely on freshwater flow into and through our San Francisco Bay Estuary could be catastrophic. All of this is being accomplished under the cover of a drought panic, even though it is now understood and accepted that human health and safety water needs will be met this year.

Background -- You probably know by now that California is in the middle of a bad drought. The state’s largest reservoir – its Sierra Nevada snow pack -- had less than 15% of its normal volume of water at the beginning of February. To make matters worse, many of the man-made reservoirs in the northern part of the state had less than 60% of their normal amount of water in storage at the end of February. These were among the worst levels ever recorded.

So, it was no surprise when, at the beginning of February, the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) petitioned the State Water Board to relax water quality regulations in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Maintaining these water quality standards during a drought requires these two agencies to release water from upstream reservoirs in order to keep encroaching salt water at bay. DWR and USBR proposed instead to store water in upstream reservoirs for potential future human needs and to maintain cold water resources that might allow successful spawning and incubation of our endangered winter-run Chinook salmon during the summer months. They also proposed opening some special barriers that allow more water to make it from the Sacramento River (in the north) to the giant water export pumps in the south Delta.

In February, these actions seemed well-reasoned, prudent, and probably necessary to manage limited supplies during a lethal drought. But everyone agreed that the decision to hold water upstream to potentially benefit the Chinook salmon that will spawn this year would have dire consequences for the current offspring of Chinook salmon and steelhead that spawned last year; these juvenile fish rely on fresh water flows into and through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta as they migrate during the winter and spring.

In March, the US Fish and Wildlife Service wrote: “Continuing severe drought in the Central Valley of California is expected to produce conditions [that] could lead to the loss of an entire year class of juvenile fall Chinook …” Similarly, biologists with California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife and the federal National Marine Fisheries Service began a “Herculean effort to stave off a fishery disaster," saying that if they did not carry juvenile fish downstream in trucks, we would “run the risk of perhaps losing an entire year-class of salmon" in the Central Valley’s rivers and Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Then it started to rain.

Precipitation at the end of March and beginning of April improved water storage at most of the State’s largest reservoirs, though they are still critically low compared to normal levels. Snow pack in the Sierra Nevada is still only 1/3rd of what is normal for this time of year, but that’s better than it was two months earlier.

This unexpected rain and snow came just as juveniles of threatened fish (including, Central Valley steelhead, two populations of endangered salmon, and the economically valuable fall run Chinook salmon) were migrating downriver and into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta on their way to San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean. The rivers of California’s Central Valley swelled with runoff from the storms and this should have helped the migrating fish get through the Delta, where survival is chronically poor. That runoff could also have restored water quality in the Delta, benefitting other native fish species and in-Delta farmers who rely on the flow of fresh water. But it didn’t.

What happened instead reveals the radically unbalanced state of California’s water priorities.

Declaring that human health and safety needs for water in 2014 were met, DWR and USBR nevertheless petitioned the State Water Board, as the rains began, to weaken water quality protections in the Delta for a second time. Furthermore, they asked the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to waive protections that are specifically designed to keep California’s endangered salmon from going extinct in critically dry years like this one.

The beneficiaries of relaxing legal protections for water quality and endangered species: a small group of industrial farm operations in the southern San Joaquin River Valley (the “San Joaquin Exchange Contractors”). Because they have “senior water rights”, these contractors were already promised more water this year than most other water agencies in the Central Valley. Worse yet, the San Joaquin Exchange Contractors planned to sell the additional water on the open market. They pay about $7/acre-foot for their water; though they will likely sell that water to others for more than $1000/acre-foot.

Despite protests from multiple environmental non-profits, including The Bay Institute, and fishing organizations, NMFS and the State Water Board eliminated certain clean water and endangered fish protections in order to allow the San Joaquin Exchange Contractors to reap a windfall.

As the late-March rains continued, politicians stepped up their calls to export as much water as possible to agribusinesses … and, once again, the fish and wildlife agencies capitulated.

On April 1, under intense political pressure from the San Joaquin Exchange Contractors, Senator Dianne Feinstein, and a small group of Congressmen, DWR and USBR asked NMFS to ignore the basic minimum protections for imperiled Central Valley steelhead so that the giant water export pumps owned by the state and federal government could continue to capture the freshwater pulse from the rains. The federal fish agency granted industrial agriculture’s wish without objection, turning a blind eye to their own regulations and responsibility to protect resources that belong to all of us.

Using a severe drought as an excuse, federal and state agencies eliminated environmental regulations in order to benefit a small group of wealthy farmers. Remember: these waivers were not necessary to protect human health and safety; even DWR admits that environmental regulations are not causing water shortages this year (because the drought is caused by…. a drought!). The consequences are likely to be severe, and the damage may be permanent.

What next?!?

Currently, water export rates at the federal Central Valley Project pumps in the south Delta have jumped to levels that would be high even if we weren’t in a drought. This makes rivers in the south Delta run backwards (towards the pumps) and leads to fish being sucked into the South Delta water export facilities at the highest rates of the year (despite the euphemism, these “salvage” fish will certainly die). But the real damage of water exports and fish entrainment is many hundreds of times greater than number of fish bodies counted at the pumps. [Read our report to understand the many devastating impacts of water export operations].

The rains should have made things better for California’s farmers, and fish and wildlife and those who depend on a healthy environment for their livelihood, but California’s wealthy and well-connected agribusiness elite took all the benefit for themselves.

Environmental and fishing organizations are unified in their protest of this blatant water grab. We have demanded, and are waiting to see a specific accounting of how March’s magical rains will be allocated to benefit all Californians – our environment and our fishing fleet, as well as our farms. We are also expecting the responsible state and federal agencies develop an actual plan for protecting environmental resources through the rest of the year (as opposed to their reactive, waiver-of-the-week approach to drought management).

Only time will tell what damage has been done to steelhead and winter run, spring run, and fall run Chinook salmon. The entire Bay-Delta estuary ecosystem may have been damaged in ways that we cannot now predict. One casualty of this drought that is not likely to recover quickly is the credibility of government agencies that are supposed to prevent (not encourage) extinction of our native species.

The State Water Board, the Bay-Delta, and the San Joaquin River: What’s at Stake?

4:11 PM on March 19, 2013


One vision of the San Joaquin's future.

Bay-Delta water quality standards are reviewed every three years, in theory, but the reality is that major changes are made only once in a generation. This time around, in the most serious potential update to the standards in eighteen years, the State Water Resources Control Board is proposing that only 35% of the San Joaquin River’s flow must reach the Bay-Delta from February through June. This represents a meager increase from a miserable current status quo. Thirty-five percent of a river is, for many species and ecosystems, the same as no river at all.

We’ve been writing quite a bit about the Board’s upcoming decision regarding water quality in the Bay-Delta (see here and here). Our colleagues have are focused on the issue as well (see here and here).

Why so much interest in the San Joaquin River and the water quality conditions it creates as it flows into the San Francisco Bay-Delta? Because there’s SO much at stake.

Here’s a review of what the Bay-Delta has to gain from a decision that restores more than half of the San Joaquin’s winter and spring freshwater flow (and what we will lose if the State Board acts timidly and refuses to consider more aggressive actions to save the Bay-Delta):

Viability for native species

Where we may be headed if State Water Board fails to protect the San Joaquin and our Bay-Delta.
The San Joaquin once hosted some of the largest spawning populations of Chinook salmon in the state of California – both fall and spring run Chinook spawned in the San Joaquin and its tributaries: the Stanislaus, Tuolumne, and Merced Rivers. These fish thrived in the cold waters produced by snowmelt in the southern Sierra. Today spring-run Chinook salmon are extinct throughout the San Joaquin watershed (and a long march to restore them and other runs has just begun on the mainstem San Joaquin). Fall-run Chinook populations on the tributaries are less than 1% of what they were historically. Steelhead (ocean going rainbow trout) still spawn in each of the San Joaquin’s major tributaries – but there numbers are generally in the tens or even single digits. Sturgeon spawning in the San Joaquin River Valley has not been reported for decades, but this watershed’s rivers can provide spawning and rearing habitat for these ancient giants.

By restoring populations of Chinook salmon, steelhead, and sturgeon to the San Joaquin Valley, we can insulate these populations from catastrophes that may occur in their current, highly restricted, Central Valley ranges. When all our native fishes rely on just one river system, the Sacramento River, which feeds the northern Delta, then all of their eggs are in one basket. A chemical spill, disease outbreak, or particularly dry set of years in the northern Sierra can wipe out the entire Central Valley population of species that rely completely on the Sacramento River. By restoring freshwater flows in the San Joaquin River to something resembling their historical patterns, we create insurance against natural and man-made catastrophes that could quickly extinguish our native migratory fish populations.

In the not too distant future, the San Joaquin River Valley may be the only place some of our native fishes can flourish. Paradoxically, though it drains the southern Sierra, the San Joaquin River is expected to become a refuge for California’s coldwater fisheries (salmon, steelhead, hardhead) as the state’s climate warms. This is because the mountains of the southern Sierra are taller (and colder) than those to the north and are thus projected to hold on to their snowpack and cold water supplies in the future. Thus, as California’s climate warms, our hope is that California’s salmonids can persist into the next century in the coldwater refugia that will remain in the high watersheds of the San Joaquin River Valley.

California’s Commercial and Sportfishing Industries
Several state and federal laws require restoration of Chinook salmon populations in the San Joaquin River – in fact, between the Central Valley Project Improvement Act of 1993 and the San Joaquin Settlement Act of 2009, restoration of the San Joaquin is required to produce more than 100,000 additional salmon each year. That would be a great boon to California’s storied but struggling commercial fishing fleet (see here), the tourism businesses that rely on visiting anglers from across the country, and consumers of delicious, healthy wild salmon everywhere. It’s important to remember that, in addition to Central Valley agribusiness, commercial fishermen are also food producers and they too rely on Central Valley water to produce their “crop”.

The Bay-Delta
The San Joaquin is the 2nd largest tributary to the Bay-Delta. By diverting up to 90% of this River’s flow before it reaches the Delta, we have disconnected the southern Delta from the pulse of life. Historically, the winter and spring flow of fresh water were the lifeblood to our unique Delta ecosystem, helping to transport nutrients, energy, and organisms into and through the Delta to the Bay. Without that flush of freshwater, the southern Delta’s stagnant waters have become home to a variety of lake-dwelling exotic species that make the southern half of the Delta even less hospitable to native species.

Just as importantly, the Board’s decisions regarding freshwater flow conditions on the San Joaquin River are the linchpin for success in other Delta restoration efforts, such as BDCP or the Delta Stewardship Council’s Master Plan. The State Board’s current focus on San Joaquin inflows to the Delta is just Phase I of a larger process to set water quality standards for the Bay and Delta. If the State Board does not provide sufficient freshwater from the San Joaquin (currently, the most overdrafted of the Central Valley’s major rivers), then the chances that it will, in later phases, restore the necessary flow of fresh water through the Delta to the Bay are slim at best. Without a significant and equitable contribution of fresh water from the San Joaquin River to the Delta, restoration of Delta habitats and a diverse suite of organisms is highly unlikely.

The River
Then there is the San Joaquin River itself. This river has long been among the most abused waterways in the country. In most years, its upstream and downstream sections are disconnected by long stretches of dry riverbed because dams upstream store too much water. Even the best restoration prescription currently on the table (published, ironically, as a non-binding finding by the State Water Board itself in 2010) envisions only 60% of the San Joaquin’s flow reaching the Delta – this is far below levels that most of the world would recognize as protective. Although restoring half of the San Joaquin Rivers contribution to the Delta is still not enough, it would at least put us in a position to argue about whether the “glass is half full”. A river that has 2/3 of its water diverted before it reaches its Delta is, for some species and beneficial uses of the river, just an empty glass.

Please join us in telling the State Board that you value the salmon, steelhead, and sturgeon of the San Joaquin Valley, that you value the Bay-Delta as the heart of the largest inland estuary on the west coast of the Americas, and that you value the San Joaquin River, because it’s not too late to make it a healthy river again by signing our petition.

End the Drought Now

3:52 PM on January 30, 2013

The longest running drought in recorded California history is happening right now, and it isn’t caused by climate change or nature. This drought is the result of the average annual diversion of half the fresh water flowing from the Central Valley watershed before it reaches San Francisco Bay. The severe, permanent drought this diversion creates for the Bay-Delta’s endangered species and habitats is caused by the ever growing amount of water that is captured behind massive reservoirs, siphoned off into diversions along the rivers, and exported by giant pumps from the Delta.

The most dismal part of this picture is the fact that in a typical year less than a third of the water flowing in the San Joaquin River watershed - a geographic area containing the second longest river in the state and its tributaries - makes it downstream to our Bay-Delta estuary. 




Snapshot SJ
The San Joaquin drains the southern Central Valley. The river basin's water flows through the Delta into San Francisco Bay and then out the Golden Gate.

The San Joaquin has been called the “hardest working river in America.” Given the downward trend for many of its species, including the destruction of the largest spring Chinook salmon run in the state, it's clear that the San Joaquin is being worked to death.

Is this any way to run a river? Is this any way to protect an international treasure like the Bay-Delta estuary?

In 2010, responding to a mandate from the California legislature, the State Water Resources Control Board – the agency that regulates water use and diversions in order to ensure fishable, swimmable, drinkable waters and protect the public trust – re-evaluated the flow needs of the Bay-Delta. Relying heavily on the technical analysis provided by scientists at The Bay Institute and the Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Board found that at least 60% of the natural runoff in the San Joaquin watershed must be left in the river in order to fully protect the endangered species and habitats of the Bay-Delta. (Independent scientists and our own experts think the number may be even higher). This year, the Board plans to adopt new regulations for how much San Joaquin basin flow must reach the estuary, followed next year by new regulations for flow from the Sacramento River Basin to the Delta and from the Delta into San Francisco Bay.

So now that the time has come for action on San Joaquin inflow to the Delta, what is the Board proposing to do? Surely they are proposing to keep at least half of the river flowing into the estuary?

Not even close.

The Board’s proposal, released on New Year’s Eve, would set San Joaquin inflows at 35% – a very modest increase above the current, unsustainable levels and far short of the level of improvement needed to avert ecological collapse. Worse, depending on how the Board’s proposal is implemented by water users, the amount of water that actually flows in the San Joaquin river in the future may be less than what’s being proposed.

Thirty-five percent isn’t enough to prevent the continued decline of fishery populations on the basin’s rivers. It isn’t enough to ensure good water quality in the San Joaquin or the southern Delta, which are already plagued by a high level of salts and contaminants in local runoff. It isn’t enough to double the numbers of Chinook salmon, steelhead, sturgeon, and other fish species that migrate through the lower San Joaquin River and Bay-Delta on their way to and from spawning grounds in the Sierra, as required under existing state and federal laws. And it isn’t enough to help rebuild the commercial coastal salmon fishery that was closed down for the first time in recent years, or the once thriving fishing communities that depend on healthy salmon runs. 


Freshwater flow in the February through June period (dotted line -- left axis) and the corresponding production of wild Chinook salmon (columns -- right axis) in the San Joaquin River basin over the past 60 years.  Horizontal lines indicate the average salmon production during the 1967-1991 period (black, solid line); the target for doubling production over the 1967-1991 baseline mandated by  federal and state law (blue line); and the actual production in recent years (red line).  

The strong response of aquatic species and habitats to freshwater flow conditions is one of the best documented facts about the Bay-Delta estuary, and it’s clear that better flow conditions are needed to save these species and habitats than what the Board is proposing.

Of course, the prospect of giving up any water for the environment is already leading San Joaquin water users to predict the end of civilization, a regulatory dust bowl in the valley. These kinds of claims aren’t new; they're made every time those responsible for protecting the public trust are faced with the need to restore the balance toward our flow-starved aquatic ecosystems, and are shown up as hyperbole after the fact every time. (Just look at how Los Angeles has adapted to reduced diversions from Mono Lake, for instance).

The truth is that water users in the San Joaquin basin have many options for improving how they manage their water supplies to leave more water in our rivers: re-operating reservoirs, storing more water in the aquifers, changing cropping patterns, using water more efficiently. In contrast, the salmon and other instream users of the San Joaquin’s waters have run out of options.

It takes more than a third of a river to make a healthy estuary. It’s time for the State Water Board to take the first step toward ending this human-made drought now and require a serious increase in flows from the San Joaquin River to restore our declining salmon runs and other natural treasures. And it’s time for Californians to let the Board know that half a river or more is not too much to ask to revive the San Joaquin watershed and the Bay-Delta.

To get involved, please sign The SalmonAID's Coalition petition Restore the Lifeblood of San Francisco Bay: End the Man-made drought in the Bay-Delta.

Links provided for additional reading on the upcoming Water Board decision:




Governor, You Can Do Better in the Delta

2:28 PM on January 24, 2013

In his annual “State of the State” address today, Governor Brown was clear about his solution to the environmental crisis in the Bay-Delta estuary. “My proposed plan is two tunnels 30 miles long and 40 feet wide,” he said, “designed to improve the ecology of the Delta, with almost 100 square miles of habitat restoration.”

The governor inherited the project known as the Bay-Delta Conservation Plan from his predecessor, but has since adopted it as his own. To its credit, the administration recognized the following problems with that inherited project from the beginning:

  • the proposal would take even more water from the flow-starved Bay-Delta estuary;
  • failing to include water management practices like conservation that could reduce the need to export Delta water;
  • substituting wetland habitat restoration (a good thing) for improving the amount and timing of ecologically vital flows into, through and from the Delta to San Francisco Bay (an even more important thing); and,
  • the fact that this plan would actually increase the chances of extinction for species it is required to help recover.

While improved in some ways from the old plan, unfortunately the project Governor Brown called for today serves at best to perpetuate the status quo. The project would still allow as much or more water to be exported from the Delta than the current amounts that are both unsustainable AND driving the collapse of the Bay-Delta ecosystem. The project would  also leave out the part of the plan that reduces exporter reliance on the Delta through aggressive implementation of water recycling, reuse and other measures.

The status quo is not acceptable in the Delta and the proposed project could make things even worse. There is a better way to solve our environmental and water supply problems. A week ago, The Bay Institute, other environmental groups, business interests, and major urban water suppliers in both northern and southern California like the San Diego County Water Authority, East Bay Municipal Utility District, and the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, released an alternative to the governor’s plan that represents a far more environmentally, politically and economically feasible approach to solving the Delta problem. The main elements of that plan:

Building a single, more affordable diversion and tunnel – one-third the size of the governor’s proposal – to guarantee that vital drinking water supplies are never interrupted in the event of a major seismic or flooding event.

Providing more flow to San Francisco Bay, in conjunction with large-scale floodplain and wetland restoration, to ensure that endangered species and habitats and our economically valuable sport and commerical fisheries can recover and thrive.

Investing up to $5 billion in water conservation, recycling, reuse and other approaches, along with developing additional storage capacity south of the Delta. Together, conservation and smart storage can generate far more water for Californians than increasing the amount of water taken from the already oversubscribed Bay-Delta system.

California has a history of building water projects that worsen the problems they’re supposed to solve. We still have a chance to get this one right before it’s finalized, permitted and constructed – if the governor would only listen.








Fall Midwater Trawl

1:38 PM on January 14, 2013

Results Point to the Obvious: Less Water Means Less Fish

During the last months of 2012, we nervously awaited two close calls with disaster: the Mayan (Not)pocalypse and the federal government’s “Fiscal Cliff.” Ultimately, neither of these dire predictions came to pass and, hopefully the terms themselves are headed to the same historical scrap heap as past non-events like “Y2K”.

But the end of the year also revealed increasing evidence that our Bay-Delta ecosystem is currently experiencing an unprecedented environmental collapse, one I hereby dub “The Physical Cliff.” Unfortunately, we’re already over the edge of this cliff, and the prediction that we’re going to hit the ground below the cliff’s edge is based in science much more sound than that used by Mayan doomsday cosmologists or modern-day political prognosticators. Fortunately, we can still reverse course of this trajectory and end our freefall from the Physical Cliff, but only if we respond quickly.

The Data
Government agencies have been performing aquatic community sampling programs for years in the Bay-Delta estuary. One of these programs, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Fall Midwater Trawl, has caught fish and zooplankton (things that fish eat, like shrimp) at dozens of stations in the estuary’s upstream reaches between September and December annually since 1967. This program makes available one of the best long-term records of aquatic species abundance to be found anywhere in the world.

The Fall Midwater Trawl results from 2012 reinforced frightening patterns that indicate that we have already exceeded the Bay-Delta’s limits – we are falling off the Bay-Delta’s Physical Cliff. Last year, abundance of once common native species such as longfin smelt and Delta smelt – both of which are at-risk of disappearing entirely – declined substantially from levels detected just one year earlier and close to all-time record lows experienced in the past few years. Other fish and fish prey species have declined dramatically as well; even non-native fish species like threadfin shad and American shad were at record or near-record low levels providing further indication of the seriousness of this widespread problem. The Fall Midwater Trawl’s results are confirmed by results from other long-term sampling programs.

Figure 1: Trends in abundance of four fish species as recorded by Midwater Trawl from 1967-2012. On each graph, each of the horizontal lines represents abundances 10x that of the line below it. The fact that both native (smelt) and non-native (shad) have also declined precipitously in recent years is added evidence of the Bay-Delta ecosystem's collapse.

Horses of the Apocalypse
There are many drivers that have contributed to the disappearance of what were once truly staggering numbers of Central Valley fish and wildlife. More than 95% of riparian, wetland, and floodplain habitats were destroyed by the early part of the 20th Century (see TBI’s report Sierra to the Sea), and restoring them is both feasible and a key component of working our way back up the Physical Cliff. But success in recovering native species and functional habitats will also depend on reining in another driver of ecosystem decline in the Bay-Delta and its watershed: the large scale diversion and impoundment of fresh water resources.

Increasing amounts of water have been diverted from Central Valley rivers and streams since at least the mid-1800’s. After World War II, diversions escalated rapidly when the gigantic federal Central Valley Project came online in the late 1940s. Two decades later the State Water Project began exporting directly from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Despite growing environmental concerns, those diversions reached historic peak levels in the past decade, perpetuating a pattern of nearly permanent and extremely severe drought for the past three decades.

Not surprisingly to those of us who study aquatic ecology, many fish and wildlife species in the Central Valley respond positively to the volume and timing of freshwater flow. (See TBI's report Gone with the Flow for detailed discussion about the strong, durable and ubiquitous relationships between flow and species' abundance.) So, the widespread declines in species abundance reflected in 2012’s Fall Midwater Trawl results were entirely foreseeable.

Freshwater flows into and through the Delta were extremely poor since the early 2000’s (10 of 12 years were “critically dry” or “super-critically dry." In 2011, wet conditions returned to the Central Valley – wet enough that the Delta experienced what would historically have been a "below normal" year, i.e., not good but not cataclysmic. Most of the fish species in the Delta responded positively and in a few years from now, we expect better returns from the ocean of salmonids that migrated to sea during 2011. But last year was drier than 2011 and, because of the extremely high rates of water diversion throughout the Central Valley, Delta outflows looked unpromising: most of our native fish populations declined to near their lows once again, as a result.

Figure 2: Winter-spring freshwater flows out of the Delta as they would have been without diversions (unimpaired) and as they were (actual) over the past eight decades. Colors indicate hydrological categories for each year from wet (W, wettest 20% of years, blue bars) to super-critical years (SC, driest 2.5% of years, black bars). In the last 45 years, human water diversions have created a nearly permanent and severe drought. Super-critical dry years occurred only once during that period but, for fish in the estuary, 18 years were that dry. Nature provided 10 wet years during this period, but fish in the estuary only experience 4 years with wet conditions.

The simple take home message from last year is the same one we've been hearing repeatedly over the past 45+ years: when there is more water, there are more fish; less water, less fish. Humans are the real engineers of this Physical Cliff; in all but the wettest years we divert so much water from the Bay-Delta and its watershed that the estuary suffers a severe drought. Beneficial conditions for our native fish and wildlife occur only during the wettest years, when precipitation exceeds our ability to divert water.

We can stop the ecosystem’s freefall and actually re-scale the Physical Cliff by simply leaving enough water in our rivers and Delta to ensure adequate habitat conditions occur more frequently. Pending decisions by the State of California and the federal government about the amount of flow required for Bay-Delta ecosystem protection could make the difference, if decision makers do the right thing – but the bottom of the cliff is rushing towards us very quickly.

Gifts from the River

3:10 PM on December 21, 2012

Peter Vorster celebrates salmon death and renewal during a holiday bike ride on the American River.

There is much to be thankful over the holidays. The sight of salmon on the American River this past Thanksgiving brought this message home to me in an unforgettable way. The truth is, these fish were dead or dying — but the fact that they were able to return here at the end of their lifecycle, just as nature intended, is truly something to celebrate.

As a holiday tradition, every year my family takes a bike ride along the lower American River Parkway. The highlight of our ride this year was to see the many fall-run Chinook salmon spawning in river gravels and (the dead ones) decomposing along the riverside. The birds seemed to be enjoying the feast as well.

This fall’s salmon returns on the lower American River are shaping up to be the best in a decade, a remarkable rebound from the dismal returns of the last 5 years that led to the multi-year shut down of the commercial salmon industry in California. During our bike rides over the last decade, we had witnessed this decline. My kids were as happy as I was to see the salmon back; three years ago we did not see any spawning or dead salmon. I was energized by the number of people visiting the river, engaged as we were by one of Nature’s great cycles.

Scientists can trace salmon isotopes in riparian and upland ecosystems, evidence of the essential contribution salmon make to healthy terrestrial habitats by bringing ocean nutrients on their journey towards spawning grounds. But my encounter along the river remains the strongest evidence that we need salmon returns to validate our place in nature, be it molecular, caloric, or spiritual.

The increased returns of the fall run Chinook may be attributed to a fortuitous combination of factors including pumping restrictions, improved outflow, better ocean conditions, and reduced harvest. The Bay Institute helped avoid high salmon losses at critical times in the migration period by helping to secure better outflows and reduce Delta pumping. I am proud of the fact that my colleagues and I played a part in achieving these new protections, which began to be implemented in 2009.

Despite this year’s returns, the long-term trend is towards decline in California’s Chinook salmon population and still a far cry from the state and federal mandates to double salmon populations over their average abundance in the 1967-1991 period. Overall, the runs still average less than a fifth of the overall target. To counter this trend, TBI is working to ensure that the restoration of the endangered spring run to the upper San Joaquin River moves ahead as quickly as possible. We are working to ensure the new, stronger flow and water quality standards are adopted by the state in 2013, requiring higher San Joaquin inflows to help out-migrating salmon reach San Francisco Bay and the ocean.

To see salmon spawning in the wild, check out TBI’s Salmon Viewing Map and drive, bike, or walk to the nearest spot. The lower American River Parkway has many accessible places to see the fall-run in the next month and come January the steelhead should be returning. Let’s hope that they too will have a good year.

Hope is in the Water

2:06 PM on December 18, 2012

On November 9, TBI’s Rivers and Delta Associate Greg Reis and I witnessed adult Chinook salmon swimming on the upstream side of Hills Ferry Barrier near the Merced River confluence. Seeing the salmon past the barrier was a very moving and fitting end to a Water Education Foundation tour where discussion about the San Joaquin River Restoration Program and the re-introduction of salmon focused heavily on obstacles rather than opportunities. At the end of the day, however, even some of the most skeptical water district managers were visibly excited to see the fish.

Although the barrier is designed to prevent salmon from becoming stranded up-river in the dry sections that lie between the barrier and their spawning grounds, fish succeed in getting past it. Those that end up on the upstream side of barrier – and nobody is exactly sure how they do this – meet an early and unproductive death.

This fall, California Department of Fish and Game and the Bureau of Reclamation have agreed to capture and relocate all fish getting past the barrier and move them up to spawning grounds below Friant Dam where they will be allowed to swim in the upper San Joaquin River for the first time in more than half a century. As of Monday, November 19, 51 salmon have been moved; 32 of them were tagged to allow biologists to track spawning and death.

My work on the San Joaquin focuses on implementing the 2006 settlement to restore fish and flow to the upper river and re-connect California's second longest river with the SF Bay. Despite the 2006 legal settlement and 2009 Federal legislation authorizing and funding the re-watering of the San Joaquin River, the river remains dry in reaches above the Merced River. Riverside landowners who both farm in the floodplain and benefit from a dry riverbed have stymied the Federal Bureau of Reclamation from releasing water down their reach of the river. TBI, along with our partners at NRDC and Trout Unlimited, are working diligently to ensure dry reaches are re-watered so that the young fish emerging from the gravels can successfully swim back to the ocean. Otherwise, some of the young fish will be trapped next spring and moved downstream.

TBI’s work to restore flows to Central Valley rivers and increase the freshwater inflow to the SF Bay has and continues to be a long and arduous process. Several recent events give us hope and increase our resolve. After many years of dismal returns, fall-run Chinook salmon are returning to spawn in numbers that appear to be the best in a decade on many rivers. November and December is a good time to see them spawn and TBI’s Salmon Viewing Map will guide you to the good places in Bay-Delta watershed to see fall-run and coho salmon spawning in the wild. Recent rains should get the Coho salmon moving up into coastal watersheds from now through January, and let’s hope their returns are as good as the fall-run Chinook.

Nature works its magic.

Rising Seas - The Big Picture

2:00 PM on December 18, 2012


The first people arrived in the San Francisco Bay area about 12,000 years ago. Their immigration was greatly aided by sea levels 300 feet lower than those today, enabling them to migrate from Asia by both boat and foot along a broad coastal plain that extended southwards down the North American continent.

 Once they arrived, they had to move their homes and villages every few years because the Pacific Ocean was continuing to rise, and at a pretty good clip. In fact, it didn’t slow down until about 2,000 years ago. Archaeologists estimate that the roughly 400 prehistoric village sites found around the Bayshore today were home to between 25,000 and 40,000 California Indians when Europeans first arrived. Off-shore, there are far more submerged archaeological sites that were drowned by the rising Pacific Ocean over the course of 10,000 years.

We now find ourselves in the same position as the prehistoric inhabitants of the Bay Area. Sea level is on the rise again, and at a far greater rate than before. Now, however, there are six million of us living here, and our “villages” are far less portable. Houses on the edge are already tumbling into the sea or are severely damaged in the increasingly frequent “storms of the century."

But we do have some time to plan a retreat from the shore. We have a few decades to avoid, or prevent, the slow-motion tsunami that is already on the move. Over the next 40 to 50 years, higher sea levels on calm days won’t be a big deal. The greatest threat to Bayshore development will be from storms - storms that come with increasing frequency and cause much more damage due to higher tides.

The most effective and cheapest way to protect shoreline development from these storms is to restore more than 100,000 acres of wetlands that were unwisely destroyed during the past 160 years. These marshes actually reduce the size and velocity of storm waves. Engineers have done the math: by destroying these wetlands, we increased the damage done by storms last century.

If we are to prepare for sea-level rise in a manner that makes both ecological and economic sense, we have to re-grow the marshes, which takes time. The project is already underway, but inching forward at a lethargic pace, not because the marshes are too slow, but because elected officials don’t see it as a priority. The longer they wait, the more costly it will be to retreat when things really heat up later on. Unaffordable, actually.

Rain, Rain, Rain

11:55 AM on December 05, 2012

Moving salmon SalmonAid imageConservation biologist Jon Rosenfield responds to news about unusual salmon sightings in a Stockton drainage canal.

Rain, Rain, Rain! Nothing makes an aquatic biologist happier, especially one who lives in dry climates, than rain. And rain makes fish happy too. Most of our Bay's unique and economically valuable fish species respond positively to improved freshwater flow conditions in the estuary and the rivers that feed it.

So it is with Chinook (a.k.a. king) salmon. It's a simple rule on the Pacific coast of northern North America: where freshwater flows unimpeded to the ocean, wild Chinook salmon will migrate and attempt to spawn. A recent article in a Stockton paper documenting the discovery of two Chinook salmon in "an overlooked drainage canal in the middle of a busy city" is the latest evidence of that maxim.

Columnist Michael Fitzgerald writes:

"High flows of stormwater flushing out of the city system evidently created an 'attraction [flow] that confused the salmon," said Kari Burr, a fisheries biologist with the Fishery Foundation of California.

Burr had good news and bad news. The thwarted salmon will seek spawning ground in the canal and die. Even if they managed to spawn, their progeny will not escape the drying creek.

On the bright side, "It just lets us know how many fish are in the system right now for this to be happening," Burr said.

The presence of salmon in the ditches highlights the tremendous potential to restore this tenacious (and tasty) fish to its former home in the San Joaquin River valley. But the appearance of salmon in this atypical location does not mean that Central Valley salmon populations are healthy and stable. In fact, salmon from the SJR basin and other wild spawning populations in the Central Valley are far from the doubling standards mandated in federal and state laws. And, the typical locations preferred by salmon are cut off by dams, inadequate or reverse flows, and salty runoff that confuses migrating fish.

If we restore flows to the San Joaquin River - upstream AND where it enters the Delta – AND restore suitable spawning grounds - we can restore wild Chinook salmon to the southern Central Valley. On the other hand, if our plan for ecosystem restoration is simply "pray for rain," we'll occasionally find salmon in a ditch – and nowhere else.

Photo courtesy of SalmonAid