Fed: Winter Salmon Run Nearly Extinguished in California Drought

For the second straight year, huge numbers of juvenile winter-run Chinook salmon appear to have baked to death in the Sacramento River because of California’s drought-stretched water supplies, bringing the endangered species a step closer to extinction.

The grim statistics released by federal officials Wednesday raise the specter of more water cuts for agriculture next summer and restrictions on next year’s commercial and recreational salmon fishing seasons. Even a strong El Niño winter might not be enough to prevent those outcomes.

The disclosure by the National Marine Fisheries Service suggests a complicated and controversial effort to save this year’s run of salmon may have ended largely in failure, although officials said they wouldn’t have definitive numbers until late November or early December.

“We try to be hopeful, but this is not good news,” said Maria Rea, the agency’s assistant regional manager, in a conference call with reporters.

Federal officials sharply curtailed flows of water coming out of Lake Shasta this spring, delaying deliveries of irrigation water to hundreds of Central Valley farmers. Some who already had planted crops had to scrounge for water; others fallowed fields or saw smaller yields.

It now appears to have been a futile effort to keep enough cold water in the system to keep as many of the fish alive as possible.

If the preliminary figures are confirmed, it would be the second year running that nearly all of the juvenile winter-run Chinook succumbed because the water in the Sacramento River got too warm. Officials estimate that last year, only 5 percent survived long enough to migrate out to sea.

Preliminary counts indicate this year’s situation is worse, Rea said. What’s particularly troubling is that a higher number of adult fish actually swam up the river to spawn compared to last year, raising hope that the population of offspring heading downstream toward the Pacific would be greater.

Instead, Rea said, fish traps that biologists use to count young Chinook near Red Bluff have seen a nearly 22 percent drop from the same time last year.

Data Source: California Department of Fish and Wildlife
Data Source: California Department of Fish and Wildlife

“Chinook salmon are among the hardiest, most robust fish that we know of,” said Jon Rosenfield, a biologist with the nonprofit Bay Institute. “Even if you don’t care about fish, the fact that Chinook salmon can’t survive in the Sacramento River is a testament to how poorly we treat our rivers.”

Because the fish have a three-year spawning cycle, environmentalists and others fear the salmon could be on the brink of extinction as a species in the wild. The winter-run Chinook have been listed as endangered since 1994 by the federal government.

A government-run hatchery below Shasta Dam breeds winter-run Chinook in captivity. Rea said the hatchery likely will play a critical role in preventing the outright extinction of the winter-run Chinook. With dams now blocking their access to cold-water tributaries, the only place for the wild fish to hatch in the heat of the blistering summer is along a short stretch of the Sacramento River near Redding.

Rea said that the likelihood of another die-off adds urgency to plans to truck hatchery-born winter-run juveniles to the icy cold McCloud River above Shasta Dam. Those plans won’t be implemented until at least 2017.

In the immediate term, the announcement adds to the uncertainty of how the state’s surface water supplies will get allocated next year. Rea was skeptical that a rainy winter would be enough to help the fish. The El Niño conditions are expected to bring warm storms and heavier rains across the state, particularly in Southern California. Most officials say a deep snow in the northern Sierra would be the best remedy for the drought.

Rea said officials likely will “have to be very conservative with Shasta reservoir next spring.”

The drought cost farmers nearly 9 million acre-feet of water from the state and federal water projects this year, or nearly half the usual supply. Although they made up for much of the loss by pumping additional groundwater, they still fallowed some 540,000 acres of land, resulting in economic losses of $2.7 billion, according to a UC Davis study.

Many farmers have complained that too much water has been devoted to fish, and have made repeated calls for an overhaul of the federal law that affords special protections for endangered species. Chris Scheuring, a water lawyer for the California Farm Bureau Federation, said the die-off is a clear indication that federal officials need to be more flexible in their approaches to managing fish and water supply.

“There are multiple goals on the river right now, and we don’t seem to be meeting any of them,” he said. “The Endangered Species Act has been administrated in a way that doesn’t appear to prevent fish die-offs … All of that has come at the expense of … water supply.”

His sentiments were echoed by U.S. Rep. Doug LaMalfa, a Republican whose family farms rice near Richvale. “This development confirms that simply cutting water supplies to humans, which is the first and only step these agencies take, doesn’t solve the problem,” LaMalfa said in a prepared statement.

Federal scientists thought they had a plan this spring to avoid a repeat of last year’s mass die-off. Generally speaking, they tried to keep temperatures at key points on the Sacramento River at 56 degrees or less to give the juveniles a chance to survive. But officials at the federal Bureau of Reclamation at one point realized their temperature-monitoring equipment was faulty, and the water coming out of Shasta was warming up more quickly than expected. They held water back in Lake Shasta to keep it cool.

To compensate for reduced flows from Shasta, officials ramped up releases from Folsom Lake to help maintain water quality in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the estuary through which water is pumped to cities and farms in the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California. That has brought Folsom to record-low levels, raising anxiety among the suburban Sacramento water agencies that rely heavily on the lake for their primary supplies.

Meanwhile, river temperatures frequently exceeded 56 degrees despite the cool-down plan. An official gauge on the Sacramento River upstream from Highway 44 in Redding – a key point for spawning this year – logs temperature readings every hour. From June 10 through Oct. 10, the gauge measured water temperatures above 56 degrees about 1,600 times.

“By design, the Bureau of Reclamation, with State (Water Resources Control) Board approval, allowed temperatures to be much higher than they should be,” said Rosenfield, the Bay Institute biologist. “They were trying to go with the cook the egg slowly approach. … As I expected, as others expected, this year’s hatching success is even lower than last year’s.”

The shrinking winter-run population signals troubles for the state’s $1.4 billion salmon-fishing industry. Although commercial fishermen mostly harvest hatchery raised fall-run salmon, the die-off could lead next year to more stringent regulation of commercial and recreational fishing to ward against accidental catches of winter-run fish. Salmon fishing could be restricted along much of California’s central coast and in the Sacramento River system. Rea said those decisions wouldn’t be made until next spring.

John McManus, executive director of the Golden Gate Salmon Association, said commercial and sport fishermen are bracing for more restrictions. As it is, the waters were closed to commercial fishing earlier this year at two key points along the coastline.

In 2008 and 2009, fisheries officials shut down the salmon fishing seasons altogether because of poor returns of the fall-run Chinook. State officials estimate the closures those years led to a nearly $549 million hit to California’s economy.

Bill Jennings, executive director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, said the law is clear: Dam managers, water regulators and fisheries officials are required to manage the dams to ensure the fish don’t die. Instead, he said they kowtowed to powerful agricultural interests and allowed more water to be released than they should have.

“The bottom line is they ignored the law,” Jennings said. “We’ve over-appropriated and over-promised, and this is the result.”

By: Ryan Sabalow
Published: October 28, 2015