It’s Time for the Biden Administration to Protect Salmon

Credit: National Park Service, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

On day one of his Administration, President Biden ordered his staff to “immediately review” and take action to address a number of destructive Trump Administration actions that failed to adhere to the best available science and protect the environment. The two Endangered Species Act permits (“biological opinions”) issued by the Trump Administration for California’s Bay-Delta ecosystem were included on the list of actions explicitly called out for review. These two Trump biological opinions are unquestionably environmentally destructive, authorizing the complete extinction of at least one run of endangered chinook salmon and, at best, the slow demise of several other threatened and endangered fish native to the Bay-Delta ecosystem. These biological opinions also fail to reflect the best science, with the agencies’ own fisheries scientists being sidelined in the process of drafting them when their drafts failed to “open up the water,” as President Trump put it, or authorize increased water withdrawals for agriculture in a predetermined outcome that ignored the overwhelming science about the harm that increased diversions would cause.

President Biden specified that this review was to occur within 90 days of the Executive Order. But, here we are, over six months later, and the Biden Administration has not yet withdrawn these wildly destructive and unlawful biological opinions, despite the threat that they are posing every day to the continued existence of several of California’s native species. California’s salmon are suffering massive die-offs this summer because of the excessive, reservoir-draining water deliveries authorized by these biological opinions. And Secretary Haaland has now had 90 days times two for her review. It is time for her to act. Join us in telling the Secretary that she must no longer delay reversing the damage done by these Trump biological opinions by reinitiating consultation now and putting strong protections in place while new permits are being drafted.

The law requires that these biological opinions protect and restore threatened and endangered salmon, sturgeon, smelt, and other species from extinction by human-caused activities; in this case, from the operations of California’s two big water projects:  the federal Central Valley Project and the State Water Project. The 2019 Trump biological opinions do nothing of the kind, instead authorizing the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to kill 100% of endangered winter run chinook salmon spawning and rearing below Shasta Dam in a year like this one. And that is precisely what the Bureau of Reclamation is on track to do, having drained most of the cold water needed to protect the winter run for delivery to agribusiness in the Sacramento Valley. As the California Department of Fish and Game recently reported, these operations are likely to lead to the death of “nearly all” of the wild winter-run chinook salmon juveniles this year. The hot water temperatures caused by this mismanagement is also likely to kill off all of the unlisted fall run chinook salmon below Shasta this year, delivering another blow to salmon fishermen up and down the west coast who depend on healthy salmon runs.  And the failure to protect salmon is yet another broken promise to the Winnemem Wintu tribe, who hold these salmon to be sacred and whose ancestral lands were flooded to build Shasta Dam.  

To be clear, there is no credible debate about the cause of these impacts or uncertainty of the science. These fish are being cooked to death because the Bureau of Reclamation chooses to release more water from its reservoirs than it should in order to deliver millions of acre feet of water, primarily to rice and almond growers who are on track to receive nearly the entire flow of the Sacramento River this year. And the only justification for these destructive operations in the biological opinions is blatant political meddling, with a top official in the National Marine Fisheries Service asserting that the drafting process violated her agency’s “scientific integrity” policy and another agency scientist revealing that the “the pendulum was always going to swing in the favor of political decisions,” in spite of the Endangered Species Act’s requirement that opinions be based solely on the best available science.

Allowing these Trump biological opinions to remain in place also endangers the rest of us in California should next year continue to be dry. Under the Bureau of Reclamation’s current 12-month forecast, Shasta Reservoir – California’s largest – will be in terrible shape if next year is dry. If Reclamation had held more water in Shasta this year, they wouldn’t be killing all the salmon and we’d all be heading into this upcoming year with more water in storage. Let’s not repeat the same mistakes next year by failing to withdraw and replace the Trump biological opinions with better protections for all of us.

Tell Secretary Haaland to act now!

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