Recent fish surveys confirm what many biologists, ecologists, and water experts have known for some time – Delta smelt remain on the brink of extinction. Zero Delta smelt were found in the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s recent Fall Midwater Trawl Survey. Even the Enhanced Delta Smelt Monitoring Program, which is specifically designed to capture the tiny fish, only successfully caught two Delta smelt from September 8 to December 11, 2020.
Improving the health of native species like Delta smelt is an imperative, as it is critical to the health of our environment and the reliability of our water supplies. As an indicator species, the Delta smelt’s absence tells a grim story about the health of the Delta ecosystem, making these recent findings all the more concerning.
These results are not surprising, when California has made slow progress on actions like habitat restoration that are essential to restoring native fish populations.
For many years flows, meaning pumping from the Delta, have been blamed as the primary cause for the decline in Delta smelt. As a result, restrictions on pumping from the Delta have been the default approach to protecting these fish.
The fact that Delta smelt populations are still desperately low – despite years of restricted pumping – confirms that a flows-only approach isn’t effectively protecting Delta smelt populations.
Equally concerning is the fact that a flows only approach has at the same time had a detrimental impact on the agriculture industry and the communities that rely on surface water, not only in the Central Valley but for anyone who buys and eats food grown there.
In fact, there are a multitude of stressors on native fish populations – including invasive and predatory non-native species, loss of habitat, contaminants, and changes in food availability and quality – and restoring the health of Delta smelt requires a broad-based approach that includes targeted actions to effectively address all these factors.
Let’s use another analogy: Responding to the near-extinction of Delta smelt by relying on pumping restrictions alone is as effective in restoring their overall health as responding to the COVID-19 pandemic by relying on bar and restaurant restrictions alone. Can some data-based restrictions be a lever for change? Absolutely. But aggressive, austere restrictions that are not supported by the science cannot be relied upon to solve the entirety of the crisis – particularly when there are severe economic consequences associated with the restrictions, too.
Ultimately, we must pursue a combination of functional flow and non-flow measures, including habitat restoration and adaptive management, to meet the needs of native fish and wildlife species. Without a more holistic approach, the Delta smelt will go from endangered to extinct.
A regulatory approach has dominated water management in California over the past three decades. This was a significant shift from the development phase of California’s water system, as described by water policy expert Tim Quinn, former executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies. Many believe that policy-makers and water users are making another transition, this time from conflict to collaboration.
Significant changes like this, where new or increasing demands lead to policy changes that increase resource scarcity, often generate resistance among the negatively impacted parties. In California, this resulted in warring factions fighting over water supplies, often in a zero-sum game of winner take all, or, more accurately, winner take most. The detrimental effect of the regulatory approach to water management on farms, farm jobs, rural communities, and California’s economy is squarely rooted in dwindling water supply reliability.
It’s important to note that not all water supply shortages are caused by regulatory restrictions. California’s variable hydrology also plays a role; however, the ultimate impact is intensified by the restrictions imposed by State and federal regulatory actions affecting the delivery of water to millions of people and millions of acres of farms throughout California.
Local Cooperation Increases Water Deliveries to Farms and Wildlife Refuges
At the local level, farmers on the west side of California’s San Joaquin Valley saw the reliability of their water supply contracts fall from about 90 percent in 1989 to roughly 30 percent in the last five years. These water supply restrictions were based mostly on environmental regulations intended to improve populations of Chinook salmon and Delta smelt, however numbers of the listed species continued to decline, despite the imposition of regulations that, over time, have redirected vast amounts of water from agricultural uses to environmental uses.
In an effort to respond to these policies and improve the reliability of their dwindling water supplies, local water agency members within the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority chose a different path, one of collaboration.
Starting locally, senior and junior water rights holders, along with wildlife refuges, began working together on multi-benefit projects that increased water conservation or modified the timing of water deliveries, providing additional water supplies for farms and flexible water management for the refuges. This collaborative effort helps deliver more water for irrigation in the summer, while increasing the ability to deliver supplies to refuges in the fall when it is needed most for waterfowl habitat.
The benefits of local cooperation are improved by recent policy decisions at the federal level to increase opportunities to deliver water to farms when its available, while at the same time, enhancing protections for endangered fish.
Federal Response Enhances Regulatory Structure to Improve Water Supply Reliability
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Director Aurelia Skipwith came to California recently to participate in a tour of California’s federal water infrastructure, the federal San Luis National Wildlife Refuge, and local farms near Los Banos. She brought with her a message of cooperation, unity, and a desire to continue to enhance the regulatory structure to improve the reliability of water supplies and improve protections provided for threatened and endangered species.
Director Skipwith comes from a background in the agricultural industry, has a law degree, and co-founded AVC Global, a company designed to reduce inefficiencies “…in buying and moving agricultural products from the farm to the final use,” according to the AVC Global web site.
Her primary responsibility is administering federal laws, such as the Endangered Species Act, which means her real-world experience developing partnerships, problem solving, and achieving goals while taking into account the people on the front lines where federal laws are implemented is a real asset. It’s clear that she brings a real-world perspective to her role as the head of the Fish and Wildlife Service.
“President Trump’s (October 2018) Executive Order on water brought together agricultural, municipal, and environmental stakeholders to finish the update of the biological opinions,” she said.
That update had begun during the Obama Administration.
“Under a short timeframe, the parties had to work together to make it happen, she said. “President Trump, (Interior) Secretary Bernhardt and the Fish and Wildlife Service helped broker what was an amicable process.”
New Biological Opinions Improve Conditions for Water Users and Listed Species
The end result is a new set of biological opinions that have helped deliver more water to farms and provide better, more science-based solutions to species protections. Instead of the former calendar-based approach to species management, new science generated from 10 years of research into California’s Bay-Delta has improved protections for fish and helped deliver more water to the people who need it.
Director Skipwith also mentioned the Great American Outdoors Act, recently passed by Congress, to help end the
maintenance backlog at the country’s National Parks and National Wildlife Refuges.
“There is a $1.3 billion backlog of projects like this and $1 billion of it is in refuges. Refuges are public lands that need to be in good shape for the species that depend on them and they also need to be welcoming and accessible for the people who visit to enjoy the wildlife and open space. It’s a blessing to have bipartisan support for it,” she said.
She praised the efforts of local water agencies, including the members of the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority and the San Joaquin River Exchange Contractors Water Authority for their efforts to forge agreements that include the Fish and Wildlife Service. Those agreements help local water users and the federal government operate more efficiently while delivering water to grow the nation’s food and to protect vitally important neighboring wildlife refuges.
There has been a lot of discussion recently about the federal rules known as biological opinions that are intended to protect threatened and endangered species in the San Francisco Bay-Delta region. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a biological opinion, “…is a document that states the opinion of the service whether or not a federal action is likely to jeopardize the continued existence of listed species in the destruction or adverse modification of critical habitat.”
We are nearing the end of 10 years of implementation of the biological opinions that were adopted in 2008 and 2009 and aimed but failed to lead to the recovery of Delta smelt and Chinook salmon. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
and National Marine Fisheries Service, two agencies responsible for implementing the Endangered Species Act for different species, recently released updated versions of these biological opinions.
Calendar-based approach is outdated
Some stakeholders claim that existing calendar-based regulatory structures, rather than the new, real-time monitoring proposed under the updated rules are more protective of species. By contrast, many other stakeholders see a way to improve the reliability of water deliveries while also making positive changes in the environment. Specifically, we believe the new set of biological opinions actually increases protections for listed species and will help fish populations start to recover, rather than continue to decline as they have during the decade we’ve spent basing decisions on a calendar instead of emerging science.
Better protection for fish
So how are the new biological opinions an improvement over the previous ones? Here are four ways that fish receive the same or better protection moving forward.
1. Increased cold-water pool at Shasta. The additional amount of cold water that will be stored behind Shasta Dam will be used to maintain healthy temperatures AND will be managed better in order to protect salmon spawning in the Sacramento River.
2. Pumping restrictions related to salvage at the pumps. The salvage (or “take”) target for reducing pumping will be the 10-year average that was achieved under the old biological opinions. Some groups point to the old versions as the Gold Standard. Operating the Central Valley Project under the new biological opinions will not take any more fish than were taken under the old, outdated, and less flexible rules.
3. Investments in fisheries. Under the new biological opinions, $1.5 billion will be spent on fishery improvements. That includes investments in habitat, restored spawning grounds and side channels in rivers and streams that are important to the salmon life cycle. Net pens for smelt placed in the Yolo Bypass and various reaches of the Delta will help increase smelt populations from a current estimate of about 5,000 fish to a projected half a million by leveraging the existing captive population. This trend reversal is exciting and will be subject to annual reporting, a level of transparency that did not exist under the old rules.
4. Real-time monitoring. Under the new rules, pumping restrictions would be based on real-time monitoring of where smelt and migrating salmon are in the Delta, rather than the seasonal prescriptions contained in the current regulations. When we know exactly where fish are it is much easier to make determinations for water project operations that deliver more water for people without any increased risk for fish.
Flexibility for water users
Creating better habitat, improving stream flows, controlling predators, and protecting listed species from the pumps in the Delta can help turn the tide for California’s struggling fisheries. These improvements will translate into more flexibility for water operators, which is good for farms, homes, and businesses. It is the kind of success we have sought, but one that has been out of reach under the old biological opinions.
California’s Water Management Future – Voluntary Agreements
In a 2008 speech to Google employees in Mountain View, then-San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newson repeated the axiom, “As goes California, so goes the nation.” He was expressing the progressive nature of The Golden State, which has been a national leader on many fronts since Admission Day on September 9, 1850.
Senate Bill 1 (Atkins, D-San Diego) could reflect California’s independence as a national leader, but unless amended, it will tie us to the past in a way that stymies progressive innovation on environmental projects. SB 1, while championed as a defense for California from potential changes in federal environmental protections, also stands to upend new, unprecedented, Voluntary Agreements (VA). The VAs are bringing warring factions together to improve the ecosystem while at the same time, working toward more water supply reliability for people. The fact that SB1, as written, will destroy the Voluntary Agreements is not disputed. In a recent letter to Governor Newsom, United States Senator Dianne Feinstein, Congressman Jim Costa, Congressman John Garamendi, Congressman Josh Harder and Congressman TJ Cox strongly urged the governor to amend SB1 because it threatens the science-based approach in the VAs for ecosystem and water management in the future.
“We oppose section 3(c) of the bill as drafted as it would prevent the State from incorporating the latest science and other information in permitting decisions.”
The VAs are bringing warring factions together to improve the ecosystem while at the same time, working toward more water supply reliability for people.
But not everyone is in love with the Voluntary Agreements. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) chose not to participate in discussions last year that hammered out the VA framework among public water agencies, farmers, other members of the conservation community, and the leadership from state and federal agencies.
Why is that?
One can speculate that NRDC, which helped lead the legal charge for the 2008 and 2009 Delta smelt and salmon biological opinions (BiOps), is clinging to the past because to do otherwise would be an admission of failure. Look at overall Delta smelt and salmon populations since then. Have they improved under the BiOps? No, and in fact, things have gotten worse.
On the other hand, local projects to improve stream bed spawning grounds, restoration of side channels on the Sacramento, Tuolumne, and other rivers, and the voluntary removal of impediments to salmon migration, show significant promise to fisheries. The science from two or three decades ago told us one thing but we’re learning now that much of it was wrong or marginally effective.
New science is showing us a better path forward, a more progressive way for water users and environmentalists to work together to solve a multitude of problems. Unaltered, SB 1 will chain us to the regulatory shackles of the past.
That may be what NRDC wants for California, but it isn’t a healthy future for California’s environment, quality of life, or the people living here who seek to enjoy it.
STATEMENT: Voluntary Agreement on Water Represents the Future and Deserves Prop 68 Funding
By Mike Wade, Executive Director
California Farm Water Coalition
California has always prided itself on cutting-edge ideas. It is the place others turn to for new solutions to old problems. We are currently faced with a choice to continue that tradition of innovation with a fresh approach to water and environmental management or chain ourselves to outdated practices of the past.
Last fall, in a historic first, competing water interests came together to produce a voluntary agreement (VA) that will govern water use, habitat projects, and implement new science-based management practices. The Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) says the VA would, “increase flows in rivers and the Delta and make major investments in habitat. And perhaps most important, create sustainable funding for these efforts (including fees on water diversions), while improving scientific research on and governance of restoration efforts.”
This agreement is the result of years of collaboration between government agencies, water users and environmental interests, conducting scientific studies and projects that put the new science into practice. The VA takes us out of the slow grind of the existing regulatory process and allows us to use scientific structured decision-making to address problems as we go.
The California Legislature is considering a budget this week with funds specifically earmarked for the VA that could provide additional momentum to this progress. Funding from the voter-approved Proposition 68 will help jump start this science-based process. That would mean choosing science-based rules and voluntary, holistic approaches to problems rather than the outdated regulatory status quo. The PPIC says, “What’s clear is that negotiated solutions to water conflicts are fairer and longer-lasting than top-down regulatory solutions or, worse yet, litigated solutions where judges end up trying to manage water.”
And there’s no reason to cling to the past. It’s clear that the current outdated system isn’t working for anyone. Endangered fish populations continue to struggle; farmers face dwindling water supplies; urban users make continuous cutbacks; groundwater supplies are dangerously depleted; and current policy does not address new challenges we face from climate change.
One of the many things this process has revealed is that helping struggling fish populations takes more than water, which is important, but not the only habitat feature fish need. It takes a combination of water at the right time plus attention to habitat, food supply and predator control.
There are other ingredients essential to this agreement. Under the VA, change happens now. Additional water for environmental purposes and habitat restoration begins immediately. That means we reap the benefits today. The regulatory approach could take decades. Plus, in another important first, agricultural water users will pay fees to implement ongoing environmental projects. While there is a need for initial Prop 68 funding, user fees are critical to long-term success because they are an ongoing source of funding.
In a letter to legislators in support of the VA, a group of statewide organizations, including the California Chamber of Commerce and the Bay Area Council, summed it up this way: “The Voluntary Agreements provide a tremendous opportunity to provide more water for fish, wildlife and habitat restoration and a more reliable water supply for a growing state with climate and water supply challenges. The Voluntary Agreement will replace the policy and legal conflicts that have defined the last three decades. Instead, they rely on a collaborative and adaptive management process that will move the state substantially closer to the coequal goals of providing a more reliable water supply for California and protecting, restoring, and enhancing the Delta ecosystem.”
California must choose. The Voluntary Agreement represents the future and a new path away from a failed regulatory approach.
A Compromise Plan is Achievable if All Sides Come to the Table
There are a lot of discussions about what isn’t working for wildlife in California’s waterways? So what COULD work? Improving outcomes for fish species while protecting communities is possible when everyone comes together in good faith to find solutions. Local communities have made great strides, investing in ecosystem and habitat restoration, as well as preparing plans based on real-world, site-specific science that can do even more.
The heat of the Sacramento summer has also seen a lot of heated water debate, topped off by two days of contentious hearings on a proposal by the State Water Resources Board. If implemented, Phase I of this policy, which is aimed at the San Joaquin River and its tributaries, would subtract 350,000 acre-feet of water yearly from the amount available to Californians – that’s enough to irrigate over 100,000 acres of farmland or meet the domestic needs of 2 million people for a year. And that’s just the beginning. Phase II heads north into the Sacramento Valley, expanding the impact of this misguided policy to hundreds of thousands of additional acres and millions of acre-feet of water.
This proposal would have devastating impacts on more than farms and farm workers – the pain would be felt by cities as large as San Francisco and towns as small as Mendota, counties, rural areas, schools, sanitation districts, small businesses, large industries, within and far beyond the immediate areas impacted by the Board’s decision. Hundreds of people representing the broad coalition of those impacted rallied on the Capitol steps, pleading with the Board to consider alternative plans.
As summer gives way to fall, it seems a good time to step back and examine what we’ve learned for all of this. First, all Californians support healthy rivers. Keeping them and the entire ecosystem healthy makes sense for all water users. Second, this issue is not about red vs blue, fish vs farms or north vs south; it’s about all sides working together to find a real solution that is sustainable over time and serves all Californians. The question is, with so much emotion surrounding this issue, how do we get there?
Holistic, comprehensive approaches work best
The troubles in California’s rivers didn’t start yesterday, nor have those impacted been standing idly by. Water districts and farmers working with conservationists, government agencies and others have spent millions in the past decades studying the ecosystems of our rivers and ways to make them healthier. The resulting science has revealed a more complete vision of the problem and a holistic approach to solving it. There is growing agreement among scientists that fish need more than water to survive and thrive. We need to restore habitat, increase food supply and decrease the number of predators.In addition, we’ve learned that more important than the amount of water in the system is the timing of adding water to the system. These “functional flows” release water when, where and how it makes sense from a biological perspective.
Moving away from exclusively focusing on the amount of water in the river and towards a more comprehensive approach is supported by our state’s most prominent water experts:
“Frankly, I think we have to get away from this notion of trying to do the math based on this much water for this many fish. That just doesn’t work. . . there is an argument that [more water] won’t make a significant enough difference unless you deal with all the other problems.”
Michael George, Delta Watermaster
“Is the goal more water or is the goal more fish? If it’s about fish, there are better solutions.”
Doug Demko, President of FishBio, environmental consulting firm
“Large-scale habitat improvements in the south and central delta are key to improving salmon survival. Higher flows alone won’t be successful.”
Peter Moyle, Professor Emeritus, Department of Wildlife, Fish and Conservation Biology and associate director of the Center for Watershed Sciences, UC Davis
Simply increasing river flow represents a “sort of a scientific laziness related to the ‘fish-gotta-swim’ theory of environmental flows, like the more water you give them, the more of them there are going to be to swim.”
Jay Lund, Director, Center for Watershed Sciences, UC Davis
Science and progress in the field
But the science has not stopped at the laboratory door. Farmers throughout the state are working with the conservation community, urban and agricultural water suppliers and state and federal agencies to implement the recommendations of these studies and gather real-world data. Just one program that has seen tremendous success is the Butte Creek Salmon Recovery Project which was launched in 1995. Thanks to this project more than 10,000 spring-run salmon return on average to Butte Creek each year, up from fewer than 100 in some years as recent as the mid-1990s.
Many cooperative projects succeed
And Butte Creek is just one example – a few of the many other projects either underway or designed and shovel-ready include:
River Garden Farms invested in a multi-year project to create refuge spots for salmon intended to improve upon a barren river bottom where young fish have little if any way of evading hungry predators or taking a break from the pulsating current. The 3-year project is being monitored to see if it can be the catalyst for similar ventures. Sonar imagery has confirmed juvenile fish are using the artificial refuge, but more monitoring needs to be done.
The Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District (GCID) staff spent over 500 hours preparing and moving approximately 8,000 cubic yards of gravel to re-open Painters Riffle, a historic salmon spawning channel.
In 2012-2014 Oakdale Irrigation District, in a partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, restored the Honolulu Bar section of the Stanislaus River. This restoration effort replanted the river’s banks with native vegetation and created two salmon rearing ponds plus enhanced nesting areas for spawning salmon. The project resulted in a rise from 43 to 152 salmon redds (nests) in the Honolulu Bar restoration area from 2012 to 2016. During the same period, the percentage of total redds on the Stanislaus River rose from just 2.3 percent in the Honolulu Bar area to over 11 percent in 2016, a fivefold increase.
The Tuolumne and Modesto Irrigation Districts have put together a $158 million plan that goes beyond flow, habitat and predator improvements to bald eagle and wildlife monitoring as well as protection for endangered species. The scientific modeling done around this plan shows significant improvement for both salmon and trout once implemented.
Why are farmers investing so much in all the research as well as implementation? As Roger Cornwell of River Garden Farms says, “The overall goal is to improve the ecosystem. A healthy ecosystem makes the whole river better for everybody.”
Inclusion and partnerships can lead to future success
A California future that includes healthy rivers and fish is in front of us. Farms and irrigation districts are ready to sit down today and work out a compromise plan. And we come armed with up-to-date science, real world data showing demonstrable results and a willingness to work for a sustainable solution that serves all Californians. But we can’t do it alone – we need all stakeholders to meet us at the table with a serious desire to make this work.
We know that the State Water Board has invested years of time as well as millions of dollars trying to find a path to better policy. But with all due respect, the policy on the table simply isn’t it. The devastation it would cause has been well documented – $3.1 billion in lost economic activity, thousands of jobs gone, land fallowed, loss of water to urban and disadvantaged rural communities alike, negative impacts on schools, local sanitation, and more. It’s also been well documented that decades of following this same water-only policy has had no effect – fish have continued to decline. And now, the benefits of trying another, more holistic approach are also documented. This really shouldn’t be a hard choice.
The right choice is sometimes the hard choice
The Board says it doesn’t have authority over anything other than the amount of water in the rivers. But it does have power over all of us and now would be the time to use it. Once the current proposal is approved, it seems likely that negotiations would end, and everyone moves into survival mode, which would be tragic. It takes courage to walk away from what’s always been done and chart a new course. Perhaps the Board using its power to bring all sides to negotiate a smarter path, rather than throwing up its hands, might be the most courageous act of all.
Another invasive species is threatening to invade California’s Delta. Joining a long list of non-native & invasive species damaging ecosystems, degrading infrastructure, and hurting wildlife, Nutria have been found near the ailing Delta.
Past invasive non-native species that have found their way into the Delta, like water hyacinth, Chinese mitten crabs, and American Bullfrogs remain persistent challenges, bringing a host of problems for native species, particularly those already threatened or endangered.
Nutria, are a non-native species once intentionally brought into California (for fur) like large-mouth bass (recreational fishing), and American Bullfrogs (as food) for the purposes of economic development. Today, they are widely known to threaten native species by damaging habitat, degrading infrastructure, and introducing disease.
California’s Delta faces numerous invasive challenges that alter habitats, deplete the food web, and impair water quality, including emerging algal blooms, as well as long term issues from numerous non-native plants.
There is hope for the Delta, bolstered by emerging science and an understanding that more than just increased water flows are needed for healthy ecosystems. Identifying the problems that plague California’s native landscapes is the first step in determining a sensible course of action to correct them.
Salmon numbers down but there’s hope in the floodplain
There have been valid concerns for years about the declining fish populations in California. While the immediate forecasts for the year aren’t much improved, there is reason for hope. Projects now underway are showing great promise in helping to turn around declining salmon numbers. The Nigiri Project is a collaborative effort between farmers and researchers to help restore salmon populations by reintroducing them during winter, to floodplains that are farmed with rice during summer. Salmon given time to grow in floodplains are bigger and healthier in a shorter period of time than fish left to their own in the Sacramento River. The project, operated by CalTrout, is being funded by a public-private partnership including Sacramento and San Joaquin Valley farmers, the California Department of Water Resources and Department of Fish and Wildlife, UC Davis, and others. More cooperative efforts are also underway to improve salmon fisheries in California’s rivers, such as rebuilding spawning habitats, and reducing predation.
New regulations for salmon fishermen may be coming because stocks are now considered by regulators to be overfished. Sadly, this is more evidence that past efforts to repair salmon populations have failed all of us – fishermen, the farmers who have faced water supply cuts, and the taxpayers who, in large part, foot the bill for the work of state and federal fishery agencies.
At the same time, farmers south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta received a meager five percent water allocation in 2016. In 2014 and 2015 it was zero. But even with those water restrictions salmon populations are down 97 percent from their most recent peak of 12.9 million pounds in 2013. It cannot be more clearly stated that water is not the solution to restoring salmon numbers.
Efforts like the Nigiri Project that help improve salmon habitat and health while they’re young and make them stronger to survive their migration to the ocean may be the answer to the salmon dilemma. They’re showing progress where other efforts have failed.