Salmon need help in California, but what kind?

Salmon need help in California, but what kind?

Salmon need help in California. Unfortunately, L.A. Times opinion writer, Michael Hiltzik, isn’t doing them any favors by furthering the notion that more water in the Delta’s sterile waterways is the solution.

Hiltzik completely ignores the economic consequences that have devastated San Joaquin Valley farms, farmworkers, and communities as a result of water supply cuts that were designed to help endangered salmon and Delta smelt. These practices have failed to achieve their intended benefit- restoring fish populations- and instead have wreaked havoc on a large part of one of California’s prime food-producing regions.

Water doesn’t fix poor ocean conditions, predators or habitat

There is little evidence backing the claim that more water flowing in the river will help restore salmon populations. According to the National Academy of Sciences, the bigger issues have been poor ocean conditions, the loss of salmon rearing habitat, channelized waterways, and non-native predators.

In addition to addressing all of these factors, another strategy that has been proven helpful is the use of “functional flows,” which utilize timing and more moderate amounts of water to meet the specific needs of fish. In the case of the Butte Creek Salmon Recovery project, functional flows plus improvements in habitat and better access to the upper reaches of Butte Creek achieved far more than simply pouring more water down the river. The project effectively increased the number of returning salmon from about 100 spring run Chinook per year in the mid-1990s to as many as 20,000 in just a few short years. And it was done without devastating impacts on farms and communities.

We should all work together on scientific approaches that help fish thrive without devastating farms, farmworkers, and communities

Hiltzik and California’s commercial salmon fleet would do more to help their cause if they supported ongoing, more scientific approaches to salmon restoration. Butte Creek is just one example of successful science-based approaches undertaken by a progressive partnership that included Sacramento and San Joaquin Valley farmers, environmental groups, California urban water agencies, the Department of Interior, and State Department of Fish and Game. Other efforts underway include projects where farmers use harvested fields to mimic flood plains with broad support from researchers, community leaders, farmers, and conservationists. These projects help build the food chain from the bottom up by taking advantage of the natural process that supports the growth of phytoplankton, the foundation of the food web. Salmon that are allowed to linger in managed farm fields grow faster, stronger and are more vigorous than fish left to forage for scant food supplies in the levee-constrained Sacramento River. And these are just a few of the collaborative efforts around that state that are showing us how to help fish thrive.

Sadly, while one-sided advocates like Hiltzik push for the same old failed strategies, salmon, and the commercial fishermen who depend on them for their livelihoods, will fare no better because their supporters are focusing on what experts say is “lazy science” and is an oversimplification of a complex issue.

Solving the many issues affecting the viability of the salmon industry is complex, but doggedly pursuing wasteful water policy won’t fix the plight of commercial salmon fishermen. Merely seeking to shift blame and avoid the hard work of establishing functional flows, habitat restoration, food web development, predation controls, and discharge reduction is a proven path to failure. 

Making good decisions – Getting results

This project proposes, as its primary project action, to acquire parcels comprising a large “island” within the flood channel and restore the property to riparian condition through natural and assisted processes.

Making good decisions – Getting results

During the recent drought, Californians were called to reevaluate Electronic Billboardhow we use, manage, and share water to get through the crisis. Farmers received only small fractions of the surface water they needed to grow food, and strident mandatory cuts were imposed on our cities, forcing us all to ask how to get the most bang for our water buck.

With a renewed focus on improving water use efficiency, communities across the state have been investigating and deploying advancements to ensure we meet our goals of doing more with less.

Farmers have fallowed hundreds of thousands of acres of their fields, installed billions of dollars worth of water-conserving technology and water measurement equipment, while developing sophisticated regional management plans and partnerships that help ensure farm water is managed and moved efficiently. Urban communities have invested millions in the latest high-tech water-saving technologies, landscaping upgrades, and infrastructure improvements to help modernize California’s water system, while reducing use . Farms and cities are united in their efforts to ensure that water used isn’t water wasted.

Out-of-date scientific theory fails to ensure success

Today the State is proposing a plan to help salmon using out-of-date, 20th century
scientific theory that doesn’t best consider the biological needs of the river ecosystems. They are using an approach which, when tested over the years, has repeatedly failed to improve the waterways and those that depend on them.

Fishery, habitat, and water experts agree that the bureaucrats are not using the best science to meet the needs of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River estuary and its salmon population.

Science that gets results – Functional Flows

“Functional flows” is an approach to water management that considersbay delta estuary the full complex needs of a waterway, the timing of those needs, and the needs and timings of the organisms dependent on the environment created by those relationships. This approach helps to ensure that water dedicated to help improve ecosystems and fish species achieves that goal.

Learn more about Functional Flows, by clicking here.


A functional flow is a component of the hydrograph that provides a distinct geomorphic or ecological function. These functions may include geomorphic processes, ecological processes, or biogeochemical processes. Such processes in rivers and associated biotic interactions operate in three dimensions, and are intimately tied to the timing, duration, and frequency of natural flows.  Thus functional flows must attempt to reflect the natural patterns of flow variability.

Yarnell, SM, AA Whipple, E Beller, C Dahm, C Enright, P Goodwin, G Petts, JH Viers. 2014. Functional Flows in Modified Riverscapes: Hydrographs, Habitats and Opportunities. Poster session at the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting, San Francisco, CA. EP41C-06

Reactions to State Board Unimpaired Flows Action

Reactions to State Board Unimpaired Flows Action

On September 15, the State Water Resources Control Board released an updated proposal for the Bay Delta Water Quality Plan, expanding the pursuit of increased flow in it’s approach for addressing species decline in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River system.

“If implemented, the State Water Board’s rule will have a devastating impact on drinking water, sanitation needs, food production, the economy and jobs for people stretching from the Northern San Joaquin Valley throughout the Bay Area. That’s why this regulation is opposed by schools, health departments, farmers, Latinos, cities, economic development officials and more,” said Mike Wade, executive director of the California Farm Water Coalition.

Water Resource Control Board President Felicia Marcus in an Op-Ed in the Sacramento Bee on September 15, 2016 remarked that-

“sometimes our rivers are asked to do too much. And then it is the State Water Board’s duty to balance water use among the many people and wildlife that are dependent on the rivers. This is now happening with the San Joaquin River. It is the longest river in California, the second largest in the state, and a critical piece of the Bay Delta puzzle. The San Joaquin is an overburdened river.”

Marcus goes on to say that the State Board will “be listening for people’s best thoughts and proposals in the coming weeks and months before making our decisions.”

But in a joint response by Modesto Irrigation District and South San Joaquin Irrigation District issued September 15, 2016, Oakdale Irrigation District General Manager Steve Knell noted that

“these plans fail to consider new science that is pointing to holistic approaches to addressing multiple stressors that affect fish populations, not just flow”

despite the numerous attempts by community leaders and water experts to ensure that the Board was aware of the multiple stressors affecting endangered fish and the Delta ecosystem, the Board continues to pursue an approach that has failed to achieve improvements in fish populations for over 20 years. The failure of flushing more and more water to the ocean is well documented, says Wade-

“The reason they cannot demonstrate benefit is because science clearly shows that decades of releasing water to the ocean has failed to halt the decline of Chinook salmon and Delta smelt. It is time to stop relying on failed strategies and move on to solutions that science tells us will help.”

Adding to the ire of affected communities, Knell noted that despite Board member commitments to listen to the public,

“Not a single public meeting ever was held in San Joaquin, Stanislaus or Merced counties.”

Representing 27 different cities, counties, school departments, chambers of commerce, water districts and farm bureaus, A Multi-County Coalition issued a response to the action calling for better analysis of available modern science, and demanded an improved process that incorporates feedback from impacted communities and stakeholders, as well as mitigation for the impacts on disadvantaged communities from any Water Resources Control Board action. The Coalition reports that the action-

“If implemented, the proposal shuts down any hope of economic growth in this multi-county region, eliminates swaths of agricultural employment, thwarts job creation and creates enormous funding challenges for schools, cities, public health, law enforcement and other essential public services.”

“It is unbelievable that our government would propose regulations that their own staff say will put farms out of business, reduce water supplies and have negative impacts on groundwater. Yet they can’t tell us what, if anything, this will do to protect the environment.” said Mike Wade, executive director of the California Farm Water Coalition.

Farmers helping fish

Figure2b_RedwoodCreek-1There has been considerable conflict lately between water users and fishery managers over the operation of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Biological opinions dating back to 2008 and 2009 have wreaked havoc on water supplies for farms, homes and businesses in the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California. Between December 1, 2015 and April 4, 2016, 913,000 acre-feet of water that could have been put into storage for use later this summer instead went out to the ocean with no measurable environmental benefits. That represents almost 300 billion gallons, or enough water to meet the domestic needs of 5.3 million people for a full year.

That’s why it’s refreshing to hear some positive news about partnerships that benefit both people and the environment. Oakdale Irrigation District and South San Joaquin Irrigation District recently approved a plan to sell up to 75,000 acre-feet of water to farmers in the San Joaquin Valley who have been largely cut off from water deliveries because of the salmon and Delta smelt biological opinions. The water sale benefits the environment because the timing of the releases is being coordinated with environmental pulse flows, which helps push salmon down the Stanislaus River to the Pacific Ocean. Hopefully, three years from now, they will have grown and return to spawn in the river. That’s assuming that the baby salmon can avoid the voracious predatory bass lurking in the Delta that some studies indicate consume over 90 percent of the out-migrating baby salmon.

The water sale benefits the environment because the timing of the releases is being coordinated with environmental pulse flows

The benefit of the transfer revenues to both Oakdale and South San Joaquin Districts is a furtherance of their investments in advancing water conservation activities back home. That’s a triple bottom line if there ever was one. The ecosystem benefits through timing of fish flows. San Joaquin Valley farmers benefit because they faced little to no surface water deliveries for the past three years. And the overall efficiency of California’s water supply system benefits through improved water use efficiency and conservation.

Let’s seek more solutions like that.

The bleeding of agriculture


Approximate number of acre-feet of fresh water flushed to the ocean since December 1, 2015

One acre-foot is 325,851 gallons.

It is enough water to meet the household needs of two California families for an entire year.


Every day more than 6,600 acre-feet, or more than 2 billion gallons, of precious water is flushed to the ocean. That’s enough to meet the annual household needs of over 36,000 people. Every day.

Since December 1, 2015 over 218 billion gallons has been lost – enough water for almost 4 million people for an entire year.

At the same time, electronic highway signs caution Californians to limit their water use because of the drought. What’s wrong with this picture?

Electronic Billboard
CalTrans billboard warns against water waste on the same day Congress takes testimony about billions of gallons of water flushed to the ocean because of failed environmental policies.

On February 23, the House Committee on Natural Resources subcommittee on Water, Power, and Oceans heard testimony that underscored what California consumers and farmers have known for years: that bureaucrats are wasting water that could serve farms and families at a rate of two billion gallons per day, all in a failed, misguided effort to save fish—and it is set to continue.

In less than 90 days between December 1, 2015 and February 23, 2016, 184 billion gallons of water has been flushed out through the San Francisco Bay. That’s enough water to supply over 3.3 million Californians with enough domestic water for a year, or to produce 9 billion salads. At the same time, CalTrans’ electronic billboards continue to urge people to reduce their water use.

These actions are supposedly meant to prevent harm to threatened and endangered Delta smelt and winter run Chinook salmon. Sadly, after years of trying the same tactic over and over, flushing all this water to the ocean has shown no measurable ecosystem benefits and instead resulted in a monumental waste of water.

Last April Governor Brown called for a 25 percent reduction in water usage by California’s urban residents. People responded with shorter showers, less outdoor watering, and more to meet the governor’s mandate. Urban users were joined by farmers, who had already lost between 40 and 100 percent of their surface water supplies. Even with this strong effort, farmers were forced to fallow fields, and farm workers stood in food lines because the jobs they had harvesting the nation’s food supply were gone.

Despite these cuts that have diverted water to salmon and smelt, population counts for these two fish have not improved. Yet water continues to be diverted, when it could instead be used to grow food, run a business, or irrigate a soccer field. Everyone wants a healthy environment, but there should be some accountability for the resources we’re quite literally pouring down the drain.

It is possible to protect the environment while giving people fair and equitable access to water. However, this gross mismanagement will continue unless Congress steps in.

Timing is Everything

Timing is Everything.

NRDC’s Doug Obegi wrote in a recent blog that we’ve captured and diverted too much water in the state’s reservoirs in January. He claims that “prevailing science” indicates that we shouldn’t be diverting more than 20 percent of unimpaired flows but he doesn’t tell us what science that is. A link in his blog goes to an opinion piece that doesn’t identify the science either.

Isn’t the water that was stored in January the same water that Doug will argue later in the year is water that we should be keeping in storage for cold-water salmon flows? I bet it is.

Isn’t the water that was stored in January the same water that Doug will argue later in the year is water that we should be keeping in storage for cold-water salmon flows? I bet it is.

In November the Chico Enterprise Record reported on an NRDC lawsuit against the Bureau of Reclamation and Sacramento River Settlement Contractors over water supply management ( The article quotes Doug on the subject of storing water for salmon.

This year the amount of cold water in Lake Shasta ran out — Doug Obegi

“This year the amount of cold water in Lake Shasta ran out, [Doug] Obegi said,” according to the paper. The story also reported that water users made an additional 440,000 acre-feet of water available for salmon by delaying deliveries to farms.

What would conditions be like if we weren’t capturing water now so it is available later in the year for multiple benefits, like fish and farms and communities? The public voted 2-1 in favor of new storage projects when they passed Proposition One, the Governor’s water bond. We think that capturing and storing water while conditions are wet is exactly what water managers ought to be doing and apparently so does the majority of California.

What do fish eat? Fish.

UPDATED 5-29-15

Assembly Member Rudy Salas (D-Bakersfield) has introduced AB 1201, a legislative bill that would require the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to develop and initiate a science-based approach that helps address predation by non-native species on Delta species. According to analysis prepared by Assembly Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee staff, the bill would accomplish two primary goals:

1) Makes findings related to the decline of native fish species in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta (Delta) and the potential for predation by nonnative species on those at-risk fish species.
2) Requires DFW, by June 30, 2016 to initiate a science-based approach that helps address predation by non-native species upon species in the Delta listed as threatened and endangered under the California Endangered Species Act (CESA).

A list of supports and opponents as of 5-29-15  is available here.

Fish eat fish.

(Originally published January 20, 2015)

In the Seinfeld episode, “The Watch,” Jerry Seinfeld says to a woman in a restaurant, “You know why fish are so thin? They eat fish.”

Despite their diets all fish aren’t thin. Take bass, for instance. They eat fish. They eat a lot of fish. Bass in California’s Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta eat a lot of baby salmon and dining season is coming up fast. You see bass, according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, will begin to increase their fish consumption in the next few months.

Bass eat endangered salmon

fish eating salmon
Non-native stripers and largemouth bass consume large numbers of threatened and endangered fish each year in the Delta.

According to “Striped Bass Fishing Tips” on the California Department of Fish and Wildlife website, spring is when bass – an invasive species introduced to provide recreational fishing in the Delta — start their annual feeding frenzy on native salmon.

During the winter, striped bass are spread from San Francisco Bay throughout the Delta and fishing is generally poor because stripers do not feed actively when the water is cold. Fishing success improves as the water warms up in March. Stripers that winter in the bays start moving upstream to fresh water for spawning. During the spring, the bulk of the legal population is spread throughout the Delta and as far north as Colusa and Princeton on the Sacramento River.”

Federal government cuts water supply to farms

On January 1 the federal National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) instituted a management action that reduced water deliveries to 25 million Californians and millions of acres of farmland in the name of protecting salmon. In its December 30, 2014 announcement, NMFS justified its decision by saying the bulk of the migrating salmon move into the Delta by the end of December. Reducing export pumping at that time, according to NMFS, “…would protect a sizeable proportion of the winter-run (salmon) population that has already entered the Delta region.”

Then the very next sentence in the announcement says, “These fish will distribute themselves within the Delta and are expected to rear for up to 3-4 months before continuing their emigration to the marine environment.”

That is if they survive the journey.

During these months, bass increase their fish consumption at the same time baby salmon are rearing in the Delta, growing in size in preparation for the remainder of their migration to the ocean. Good luck, baby salmon! You’re likely to become a meal.

Salmon slaughter

The March 2009 issue of Western Outdoors Magazine article titled “Save a Salmon, Catch a Striper” says it all:

“You see, the peak of the baby salmon’s downstream journey corresponds with the spring spawning run of striped bass. Somewhere along the line, the two migrations crash headlong into one another. It’s a one-sided blood bath, and when the spray and foam settles, the stripers emerge fat and happy while the Chinook suffer heavy loses.”

A 2010 article by Alistair Bland in the East Bay Express titled, “The baby salmon feeding frenzy in San Pablo Bay” pointed out that bass fishing party boats target areas where hatchery salmon smolts are released into the bay because the fishing is so good.

Bass fishermen can get their limits in “just minutes” and when the bass are cleaned and filleted their stomachs often contain from one to six salmon smolts.

What, if anything, is NMFS doing to protect salmon from predatory bass at the same time that it ratchets down export pumping? Twenty years of data show that pumping has had no long-term impact on salmon populations. However, a federal study released in 2013 demonstrated that 93 percent of juvenile salmon on the Tuolumne River are consumed by predators while attempting to migrate to the ocean.

What is the logic in not addressing that? Where is the outrage from the commercial salmon industry?

The real problem gets ignored

Why are other stakeholders and regulators willing to accept the status quo and reject real reform that will restore the Delta to its former productive salmon fishery? At the same time a handful of bait shops profit from the salmon-gobbling bass industry. ESPN and others broadcast high-dollar bass tournaments. And bass fishing advocates continually say that it’s the farmers of the San Joaquin Valley that are destroying the Delta.


Fish don’t have calendars

Federal government cuts water supply to farms

On January 1 the federal National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) instituted a management action that reduces water deliveries to 25 million Californians and millions of acres of struggling drought impacted farmland. All of this is done in the name of protecting salmon. But fish don’t have calendars. Regrettably, NMFS continues to use a robotic calendar-based approach to fish management despite ongoing real-time monitoring and sampling triggers that would more accurately gauge the protection needs for fish.

Real-time fish monitoring ignored

State fishery managers recently used such real-time techniques to protect Delta smelt. Why aren’t their federal counterparts using the same smart approach toward species protection? It’s not as though the federal biologists aren’t aware of real-time fishery management. In its December 30 regulatory announcement NMFS stated, “NMFS has discussed utilizing a real-time monitoring based approach with Reclamation and other parties, and remains open to developing such monitoring based real-time triggers for next year.”

Terrific. Another year will go by and farms will continue to be denied water that could legally be delivered while still protecting fish under the flexibility that environmental water managers have.

Massive food production opportunity lost

In just 22 days from December 15 to January 5 California’s water supply has lost 252,748 acre-feet of water due to Endangered Species Act-related pumping restrictions. That water could have irrigated over 84,000 acres of food-producing farmland. Because roughly half of the nation’s fresh fruits, nuts and vegetables come from California, production losses here are significant on a national scale. How much food? Here are a few individual examples of what that water could have grown in California with three acre-feet per acre. Many farmers use less.

7.4 billion servings of broccoli (3 oz.)IMG_4584

10.8 billion servings of avocados (1.1 oz.)

10.9 billion servings of bell peppers (5.3 oz.)

11.1 billion servings of leaf lettuce (3 oz.)

24.2 billion servings of celery (3.9 oz.)

(Serving size based on FDA nutrition guidelines)

Increased dependence on foreign food

Meanwhile our dependence on foreign food production continues to escalate. Every unplanted acre here at home opens the door for a producer in another country to plant and grow a crop under conditions that have long been illegal here in California – e.g. poorer labor standards, clear cutting of land, unchecked pesticide use, etc.

Let’s hope NMFS provided all of the salmon in the Delta with a new calendar for Christmas so they know when to start their migration. This situation begs another question of course, if NMFS isn’t going to actually use the real-time capabilities that have been developed at significant cost, why bother?