4 posts categorized "Salmon"

January 30, 2013

End the Drought Now

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:




December 21, 2012

Gifts from the River

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.

December 18, 2012

Hope is in the Water

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.

December 05, 2012

Rain, Rain, Rain

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