Killing Most Endangered Salmon Is How the Trump BiOps "Work"

While this year is shaping up to be a catastrophe for salmon in California, it is not a surprise—it was anticipated and, shockingly, authorized under the Trump Administration’s final permits (known as biological opinions, or "BiOps" for short). State and federal agencies agreed in 2016 that protections needed to be strengthened to prevent the extinction of winter-run Chinook salmon and other endangered and threatened species in the Bay-Delta watershed. But then the Trump Administration took power, and instead of strengthening protections, they gutted protections for salmon and other endangered species in their final biological opinions issued in 2019. These biological opinions are nothing short of a plan for extinction, and this year highlights why it is so important that the Biden Administration quickly follow through on the President’s January 20, 2021 Executive Order and overturn these biological opinions and impose interim protections while new, scientifically-justified biological opinions are developed.

The National Marine Fisheries Service’s initial estimate is that the federal Central Valley Project will kill 89% of the endangered winter run Chinook salmon that are spawned below Shasta Dam this year, which is even worse than what occurred in 2014-2015. Those drought years were a disaster for salmon, and nearly wiped out the entire run of this endangered species—while also hammering other salmon runs. 

As we learned then, this level of mortality is unsustainable and quickly would lead to extinction, which is why scientists with NMFS have previously concluded that significantly lower mortality is necessary to prevent extinction (as shown on the table below):

NMFS’ Jan. 19, 2017 Draft RPA Amendment

NMFS’ July 1, 2019 Jeopardy Biop

Trump Administration’s 2019 Biological Opinions

“Tier 4 “Years / Critically Dry Years

30% maximum temperature dependent mortality

Minimum 15% egg to fry survival and end of September Storage of 1.9 MAF

Only one in ten years can be a Tier 4 year

100% maximum temperature dependent mortality

The Trump Administration repeatedly rejected scientifically based standards in order to increase water deliveries to benefit corporate agribusinesses; first they rejected NMFS’ proposed RPA amendment in 2017, then they tried to bury the July 1, 2019 jeopardy BiOp and sideline the NMFS scientists who worked on it, and finally in 2019 issued a biological opinion that authorized killing 100% of the endangered winter-run salmon in a year like this. The Trump Administration’s biological opinion eliminated several important protections that likely would have reduced mortality this year.

  • First, it eliminated carryover storage requirements at Shasta Dam, which describe how much water must be in storage behind Shasta Dam at the end of the water year (end of September). This helps to ensure there is adequate water in storage to maintain water temperatures for salmon—and help ensure water for farms and cities—if the next year is dry. While Shasta carryover storage was more than 1.9 million in September 2020, they aren’t close to meeting this in 2021. Having to operate Shasta Dam to meet 1.9 million acre feet this year would require reducing allocations to CVP contractors, including the Sacramento River Settlement Contractors, which would improve water temperatures and reduce mortality of salmon.
  • Second, it eliminated requirements for Reclamation to consult with and get NMFS’s approval before announcing or increasing water supply allocations, as well as requirements that Reclamation reduce water supply allocations and take other actions in order to meet water temperature requirements for salmon. Instead, the Trump BiOp allows Reclamation to make allocations without regard to water temperatures, which is part of the reason why Reclamation is planning to deliver almost 3.8 million acre feet of water this year, largely to agricultural contractors. Not only does the 2019 BiOp not require reducing allocations to improve survival of salmon, but changing the timing of water deliveries, bypassing hydropower production, and other measures to reduce mortality are also not required under the Trump BiOps.
  • Third, it authorized killing 100% of the endangered winter-run Chinook salmon below Shasta in a year like this, so there was no requirement for Reclamation to take action to reduce mortality (such as reducing water supply allocations, delaying water deliveries to maintain higher storage through the summer, or bypassing hydropower production to access colder, deeper water behind Shasta Dam). 

These biological opinions developed by the Trump Administration are a plan for extinction, and the disaster we face this year was entirely foreseeable and preventable. As we approach the end of the 90 day review period under the President’s Executive Order, the disaster unfolding this year must lead the Biden Administration to take swift action to invalidate these biological opinions and impose interim protections until new, scientifically valid biological opinions can be developed.

About the Authors

Doug Obegi

Director, California River Restoration, Water Division, Nature Program

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