California's Salmon Barely Survived the 20th Century, (But Will They Vanish Before the Next One?) 

Though fishing industry observers fear for the worst, some fisheries advocates can see a path forward.

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A barrage of more obscure laws meant to protect Central Valley waterways are waived routinely for the benefit of powerful farming interests. This pattern intensified during the state's recent five-year drought, when "virtually every single rule to protect the environment got waived, and they diverted way more water than they were allowed to," said NRDC water attorney Doug Obegi.

He said exemptions to state water quality standards in 2014 and 2015 allowed the state and federal Delta pumps to increase their water supplies by more than 1.3 million acre-feet.

Farther upstream, the Bureau of Reclamation is required to maintain flows of cold water out of Lake Shasta and into the lower Sacramento River to support spawning salmon. River temperatures much higher than 56 degrees will kill or damage fertilized Chinook eggs. 

"But almost every year, the Bureau of Reclamation asks the Water Board to modify that rule, and the Water Board rubber stamps that request," said Jon Rosenfield, a scientist with the watchdog group San Francisco Baykeeper.

In 2014, this caused a total spawning failure of the endangered winter-run Chinook. After receiving heavy criticism from river and fish advocates, the bureau did almost the exact same thing the following year, causing another full spawning failure of the winter-run.

Beyond reduced flows, impaired Central Valley rivers suffer from many stressors. Water pollution, invasive clams and predatory fish, and insufficient floodplain habitat have contributed to declines in fish numbers.

"But all these other things are affected by flow rates," Rosenfield said. He added that the "best effect" from adding water to stressed rivers comes by mimicking natural cycles of flow variation.

In the scientific literature, water flows are often termed "the master variable" because of their influence over other components of a system. As Katz at California Trout quipped, "You can make habitat improvements on floodplains, but fish need water — their habitat has to be wet."

Before the Delta smelt went "functionally extinct" during the drought, as U.C. Davis biologist and fisheries expert Peter Moyle termed their collapse, the endangered fish's numbers spiked months after every high-rainfall year — a statistically clear demonstration of the immediate ecological benefits of boosted river flows. 

As for salmon, Moyle says increasing river flows will produce results. Sufficient water flowing through river basins helps flush millions of finger-sized salmon out of the perilous Delta and into the bay and ocean — though not immediately.

"It will take a few years to see a difference, and the trouble is nobody wants to wait around on the vague hope that salmon will eventually come back," he said. "If they don't see more fish in a year, they'll want their water back." 

Farmer Cannon Michael, who grows a variety of crops — mainly tomatoes — in the San Joaquin Valley, calls himself "a proponent" of salmon restoration but feels that water can be used inefficiently in conservation. "There's nothing wrong with allocating water to the environment, but we want make sure that water added to the river produces a positive response," he said.

The state's almond growers saw only a slight dip in production during the state's long drought. In the years since, almond farmers have reported successive record crops three years in a row. The latest numbers show 2.8 billion pounds harvested in 2019 and more than 1.3 million acres of trees.

The pistachio industry is not far behind. Since its record-smashing, 900-million-pound 2016 crop, analysts have predicted that pistachio growers will be harvesting about 1.5 billion pounds within a decade.

Nut farmers continue to plant millions of trees each year, establishing more and more pressure on rivers.

"It's trippy to me when they're talking about balancing coequal goals," Henery said. "So much of that growth in agriculture has been borne by the fishing industry, and the collapse of salmon."


A Success Story

Last fall, several hundred spring-run Chinook laid and fertilized their eggs in the middle reaches of the San Joaquin River and died in the current, as Pacific salmon do after they spawn. Biologists had been working for several years toward restoring a portion of the river's flows and establishing spawning habitat just below Friant Dam. 

"It was the first time in 65 years that we had a full life cycle — salmon that were born here and then returned to spawn," said Portz, program manager for the project. 

Led by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, this landmark project is emerging as a surprise success story, for many people once considered this river, impacted as it is by the Friant Dam, to be a lost cause. The dam stopped migrating adult Chinook many miles short of their cool mountain spawning grounds. Diversions from the newly filled Millerton Lake reservoir allowed fields and orchards to proliferate, and the San Joaquin's once-enormous salmon runs vanished in just several years.

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