Is 2% Enough To Save the Salmon Industry?

Less than 2%. That's how much water has been provided from the entire Central Valley in 2015 to help salmon and other fish survive the drought. Here's a pie chart prepared by staff from the State Water Resources Control Board showing this breakdown graphically:

That skinny, hard-to-see 2% slice for "regulatory outflow" includes more than just flows for fish (and definitely includes more than Endangered Species Act protections) - it also includes things like maintaining adequate water quality for farmers in the Delta. Compare that skinny slice against the more than 50% of water diverted from Central Valley rivers this year for consumptive uses, primarily agriculture, which includes total Delta exports (19%), San Joaquin upstream net use (6%), Sacramento upstream net use (19%), and net Delta consumptive use (8%). The remaining slice of 26% for salinity control is needed to ensure that the water pumped out for export in the south Delta is fresh enough to be useable, and not too salty for drinking or irrigation. The 20% of uncapturable outflow is water that exceeds the capacity or ability of those giant export pumps to pump during big storms and other confounding events (like when invasive species like water hyacinth jam up the pumps so that they can't operate effectively).

This less than 2% of the Central Valley's water dedicated to instream uses is not enough to protect our native fish, including salmon, or to preserve our 150 year-old salmon fishing industry. We've seen many of our native fish decline to historically low levels in this drought, and over 95% of chinook salmon wiped out below Shasta Dam last year due to lack of sufficient cold water.

Nevertheless, Central Valley agribusiness and their representatives are now urging Governor Brown and the State Water Board to make conditions even worse for salmon this year, and to resist efforts recommended by fishery biologists to preserve as much cold water as possible behind Shasta Dam this summer to avoid the disastrous kill-off of 2014, and give wild salmon a fighting chance to spawn and rear below Shasta Dam. These baseless requests seek to sacrifice the salmon that California holds in trust for the public and the thousands of fishermen and fishing families that depend on those salmon for their livelihood for the sake of an agricultural water appetite that cannot be satisfied. These requests should be soundly rejected.

Even worse, the difficult situation that the State Board now faces - of trying to preserve the little remaining cold water in Shasta to protect the last few struggling salmon - is purely a creation of these self-same interests, who urged the State Board to allow the Bureau of Reclamation to dump far more water from Shasta reservoir than it should have back in April and May for agriculture, which has left the reservoir in a depleted state now, and unable to provide the cold water that Reclamation assured at the time would be available to protect salmon. Indeed, Reclamation promised back in January that it wouldn't take the step it did in April of dumping more water than was needed for temperature control from Shasta reservoir, stating that:

Flow releases at Keswick will be maintained at the minimum of 3,250 cfs this winter and spring as much as practicable to help conserve storage in Shasta Lake.... Likely starting in late May, flow releases will increase at Keswick to facilitate temperature management along the upper reach of the Sacramento River, and these increased flows will then be used to meet other Project purposes in the system.

But, at the behest of agribusiness and its representatives, Reclamation abruptly ditched this plan in April, and more than doubled releases out of Shasta, reducing the size of the valuable cold-water pool that it now desperately needs to keep salmon alive. The fact that this plan was doomed to fail was not a surprise to many. Is this an example of the "operational flexibility" that San Joaquin Valley congressional members claim to desire? If so, it's proven to be a disaster, and a flexibility that Reclamation and others cannot be trusted with.

As the salmon fishing community has recognized, a repeat of last year's disastrous failure to protect salmon runs below Shasta could shut down their entire industry in coming years. That's why salmon fishermen and NRDC and other salmon advocates strongly support the State Water Board's action to improve on the failed temperature management plan for Shasta promoted by Reclamation and San Joaquin Valley agribusiness, and to act quickly to protect and manage the remaining cold water supplies in Shasta for salmon. Less than 2% is not enough, and protecting this California natural treasure is worth far more.

About the Authors

Kate Poole

Senior Attorney, Water and Wildlife Project Director, Water program

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