CA Decides to Sacrifice Salmon for Agribusiness Profits

Late Friday the State Water Resources Control Board appeared to tentatively approve a temperature management plan for Shasta Dam that sacrifices salmon and fishing jobs for agribusiness profits this year, violates water quality standards, and leaves California woefully unprepared if next year is also dry. 

Specifically, the State Water Board indicated that they would approve a temperature management plan if it achieves 1.25 million acre feet of water in Shasta at the end of September. As the State Water Board knows, allowing storage to drop that low is estimated to kill more than 50% of the endangered winter run Chinook salmon (see slide 5, pasted below) and results in water temperatures in October and November that are so hot that they are likely to kill the vast majority of the fall run Chinook salmon that spawn in the Sacramento River later this year—just like in 2014. What’s more, it means that there will be very little water in storage at the end of the year, so California will be in far worse shape than this year if 2022 is also dry.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Modeling by the fisheries scientists at the National Marine Fisheries Service shows that capping reservoir releases at 6,000 cfs and maintaining 1.47 million acre feet of water in Shasta at the end of September has far better outcomes for salmon, reducing temperature-related mortality to an estimated 32%. The biological science is clear that reducing reservoir releases and water diversions could increase reservoir storage this year and significantly improve temperature management, resulting in fewer salmon being killed this year and more water in storage in case next year is dry. And NMFS concluded in 2017 that temperature dependent mortality should never exceed 30% in order to avoid extinction of winter-run salmon. So why has the State decided to sacrifice even more of the endangered winter run salmon and fall run salmon this year, when it could do so much better? 

While this plan is terrible for salmon and the thousands of jobs and communities that depend on their health, it appears to allow Reclamation and DWR to allocate more than 4.5 million acre feet of water this year to their contractors, largely agribusinesses in the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys, rather than making more politically painful cuts. Indeed, the State Water Project still has not reduced its water allocation to zero—as Reclamation has already done for its agricultural water service contractors—even as DWR seeks to waive Delta water quality standards and contributes to the ongoing disaster for salmon below Shasta Dam as a result of the Coordinated Operating Agreement. Reducing the SWP allocation to zero could increase storage in Shasta to nearly 1.45 million acre feet, better protecting salmon this year. 

In addition to the science, the water rights of the Bureau of Reclamation and California Department of Water Resources also generally require the projects to cut water deliveries, including to the Settlement Contractors and other senior water rights holders, in order to meet their obligations to the public: providing cold water temperatures for salmon under Water Rights Order 90-5 (which generally requires 56 degrees Fahrenheit at Red Bluff Diversion Dam, consistent with the Central Valley Basin Plan) and maintaining water quality standards in the Delta that help to protect farms, cities, and the environment under Decision 1641. But when Governor Newsom waived section 13247 of the Water Code in his drought proclamation, it allowed the State Water Board to legalize violations of water quality standards, including these requirements that protect the public. And instead of reducing water deliveries in order to meet these public obligations, once again DWR and Reclamation have petitioned the State Water Board to waive the rules so that the irrigation districts and other private beneficiaries can continue to reap unsustainable profits, despite the increasing costs to the public from sacrificing salmon and degrading water quality in the Delta. 

This is the third time in the past seven years that the CVP and SWP will violate water quality standards in the Delta and cause water temperatures below Shasta Dam that violate water quality standards and are likely to kill more than 50% of the endangered winter-run Chinook salmon. And the estimated runoff this summer is not unprecedented; in fact, April to July runoff in 2021 isn't anywhere close to as dry as 2015, the last time that the State waived these rules.

Comparison of Estimated April to July Runoff to Key Reservoirs (90% Exceedence Forecast) in 2015 and 2021 (1000s of Acre Feet)
Shasta inflow640700
Oroville 285470
American 145340

The State Board’s decades-old water quality standards are woefully inadequate to protect fish and wildlife, and yet the State waives even these inadequate protections during droughts, because that’s the State’s “plan” for drought.

Sadly, it’s obvious why the State has not meaningfully updated and implemented scientifically credible water quality standards for the Bay-Delta watershed. The scientific reality is that California has to significantly reduce water diversions from the Bay-Delta if we are to restore and sustain the health of the Bay-Delta ecosystem, the thousands of fishing jobs that depend on salmon runs, and to maintain water quality for the farms and communities in the Delta. But the political reality is that the State is unwilling to cut water deliveries to Big Ag, which accounts for the vast majority of water diversions from the Bay-Delta. So instead of actual protections for salmon, the ecosystem and communities in the Delta, the State pushes a so-called voluntary agreement that is largely just smoke and mirrors that fails to protect fish and wildlife and that will repeat these same mistakes in the next drought. And in the meantime, the State yet again waives the inadequate rules during droughts, harming salmon and leading to proliferation of harmful algal blooms in Stockton and other Delta communities.

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