Hopefully, Thursday Will Bring Good News for California's Fishermen, Tribes, Environmentalists, and Everyone who Loves to Eat Fresh, Wild Salmon

On Thursday, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) is expected to release its biological opinion (BO) on the effects of the state and federal water projects on threatened and endangered runs of salmon, steelhead, green sturgeon, and killer whales.  The biological opinion does not directly assess the impacts of the water projects on fall run Chinook salmon, which is the backbone of the State's salmon fishery (and which are also caught in the fisheries offshore of Oregon, Washington, and even British Columbia).  However, the protections for the listed salmon runs (spring run and winter run Chinook) should also help protect the fall run.  Because the number of returning fall run salmon collapsed in recent years, the State's salmon fishery has been closed the past two years, costing the State hundreds of millions of dollars and resulting in thousands of lost jobs.  Fishermen, environmentalists, and Tribal members are all cautiously optimistic that this BO will help to protect and restore these listed salmon runs and the State's salmon fishery, as well as the human communities that depend on them.  

Below I explain what we expect from the new Biological Opinion, as well as how we got here.  

What to expect from the new biological opinion:

There's little question that NMFS' BO will be a "jeopardy" opinion, requiring changes to current water project operations to better protect these salmon runs and other listed species.  NMFS has already released a draft transmittal letter saying it will be a jeopardy opinion, and in 2007, the federal district court ruled that that continued operations of the state and federal water projects were jeopardizing the species and that greater protections were necessary, but the Court did not order interim relief while this new biological opinion was being prepared. 

One of the most important things we expect from this biological opinion is that it will use the best available science and will not be politically manipulated, given this Administration's commitment to sound science.  This biological opinion has undergone peer review to help ensure it uses the best available science, and I hope and expect the BO will live up to the President's promise.  As discussed in the background section below, that unfortunately was not the case with the earlier 2004 biological opinion that the federal court invalidated.

From the public documents we've seen, and from what NRDC has advocated for in court and in public, we expect that the new biological opinion will require operational changes that better protect salmon and provide them with cold, clean water when they need it.  Many of these measures will likely overlap with protections for delta smelt and other species, and some of them will have little or no impacts on water supplies.  Some of the key elements we expect include:

  • Stronger requirements for "carryover storage" in upstream reservoirs, which provide the cold water salmon need to spawn, particularly winter run salmon on the Sacramento River, since these fish can no longer reach their historic spawning habitat above Shasta dam. Yet far from causing draconian water supply costs, these protections can actually help people, since they ensure that we have enough water for people and fish at the end of the year, as a type of drought insurance, and much of this water can subsequently be exported out of the system.
  • Stronger pumping restrictions in the winter and spring months when salmon are migrating through the Delta, in order to reduce the numbers of fish that are sucked into the pumps and killed, as well as reducing the indirect effects that the massive pumps have on the Delta's hydrology and the ability of salmon to successfully migrate. Many of these restrictions will likely overlap with protections for delta smelt under the existing Fish and Wildlife Service biological opinion, since these fish are in the Delta during much of the same time of year, resulting in less additional water supply impacts.
  • Opening the gates at the Red Bluff Diversion Dam on the Sacramento River year round, once a new pumping plant is constructed in the next few years, so that salmon and green sturgeon can migrate safely past the dam year round. The Administration's stimulus funding for the pumping plant project is a win-win solution that would result in little or no water supply impacts from this measure, and it demonstrates what is possible when fishermen, environmentalists, and farmers work together on solutions.
  • Requiring more water flowing down the San Joaquin River and its tributaries at certain times of year, in order to enable steelhead to successfully migrate and spawn in these rivers. Not only will this measure help protect and restore existing steelhead (and fall run salmon), but it also should help ensure the success of the San Joaquin River Restoration Program, which will begin restoring spring run salmon to the river in 2012.
  • Additional closures of the Delta Cross Channel gates when salmon are migrating, as recent studies have shown that salmon survival increases by approximately 50% when gates are closed.

There's no question that these measures will have some water supply impacts, particularly as compared to the unprecedented levels of exports permitted under Water Rights Decision 1641 in the early part of this decade (before the drought dramatically reduced water exports).  But we must also remember that, as the Delta Vision Strategic Plan recognized, "The flow and water quality standards of the Water Board's Decision 1641 (D-1641) are increasingly recognized as inadequate," resulting in Delta Vision's recommendation that California provide more water for salmon and other fish at certain times of the year.  In addition, the water supply impacts may be mitigated in part by technological fixes like the Red Bluff pumping plant, and there won't be additional impacts for the measures that overlap with protections for delta smelt.

Ultimately, California can restore and protect salmon, the salmon fishery, and the communities that depend on healthy salmon runs, while also meeting the water needs for agricultural and urban communities.  A key part of that solution is by investing in the Virtual River of alternative water supplies like conservation, water recycling, and improved groundwater banking, which was also a key recommendation of the Delta Vision Strategic Plan.    

Background: How did we get here? 

In 2004, NRDC and a coalition of sport and commercial fishermen, environmental groups, and the Winnemem Wintu Tribe sued to invalidate the NMFS' prior biological opinion on salmon.  That plan concluded that weaker protections for salmon and increased water exports above the historically high levels of recent years would not jeopardize salmon. We were also greatly concerned that the science in that 2004 BO was politically manipulated, resulting in a no-jeopardy opinion in 2004.  Nineteen members of Congress demanded an investigation, and in 2005, the Inspector General reported that NMFS had violated its own procedures is preparing the biological opinion and "undermin[ed] the integrity of the process."

In 2007, the federal district court agreed with NRDC and our co-plaintiffs, and ruled that the biological opinion violated the Endangered Species Act because it failed to consider the impacts of climate change, lacked adequate protection for the species, and failed to use the best available science.  As a result, the Court ordered that NMFS prepare a new biological opinion. That is the biological opinion that is due out on Thursday.

In the early part of this decade, water exports from the Delta reached unprecedented levels.  Starting around the same time, however, the numbers of returning salmon began declining rapidly, and over the past two years California's salmon fishery has been completely shut down, for the first time in the State's history. This year's closure is estimated to cost the State $279M and 2,690 jobs.  NMFS has previously found that the fishery closure is a result of poor ocean conditions in conjunction with poor conditions in our rivers and the Delta, and found that the best way to protect the fishery in the long run is to restore the spring and winter runs back to health, so that poor ocean conditions won't shut down the fishery (those other runs were less affected, and this diversity of life histories is what has sustained salmon for millenia). 

NMFS has called this "death by a thousand cuts," and as I blogged previously, while ocean conditions may have provided the knockout punch for salmon, it was the ten rounds of body blows from poor conditions in our rivers that made the knockout blow possible.  And as I also noted in that post, recent studies are finding that far fewer salmon survive the migration down the Sacramento River than survive the migration past all the dams on the Columbia River, suggesting that the health of our rivers and the Delta is a critical cause of the salmon declines. 

Because protecting and restoring our rivers and the Delta is critical to restoring the State's salmon fishery, and the human communities that depend on healthy, abundant salmon populations, fishermen, tribal members, and conservationists are all anxiously awaiting tomorrow's announcement.