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The current collapse of California Central Valley salmon runs, especially the fall run chinook which sustain ocean salmon fisheries off California and Oregon, brings us face to face with some uncomfortable questions which should long since have been answered: 1) How can California meet its current water needs for fish and wildlife, municipal users, and agriculture with an oversubscribed, uncertain, and drought-prone water supply? and 2) will we sacrifice fish and wildlife needs indefinitely to the god of economic growth?
For the past forty or more years, ocean fisheries off California and Oregon have been sustained by Sacramento fall-run chinook. From about 1995 till about 2005 that run was at its most abundant in that forty-or-more year period. Then, over the next three years, it crashed to about 10% of the recent average. The ?07 spawning run of about 60,000 adults was the lowest on record, and far below the minimum necessary to replace that generation. What the hell happened?
We have two recently published documents from National Marine Fisheries Service attempting to answer this question. One, the nearly 500-page draft Biological Opinion (BiOp) on San Francisco Bay Delta water operations (produced in response to a PCFFA lawsuit throwing out the last one), does not hesitate to point out the enormous damage done to salmon and sturgeon runs by Central Valley water operations.
The other NMFS report, an investigation of the causes of the crash, first blames mildly poor ocean conditions, then barely mentions Delta habitat degradation and dewatering, and finally recommends a vague and general pathway for increasing the diversity of the fall run to protect it from future poor ocean cycles. But, hidden on p. 39 of this 60-pager is a graph showing the eventual consequences of continued habitat degradation superimposed on cyclical ocean conditions. The consequences are, put simply, extinction.
NMFS appears to be telling us that if Central Valley water operations continue current trends, the next round of poor ocean conditions may be the last round for Sacramento fall chinook.
The draft BiOp reached a similar conclusion, stating point blank that continuing current water management patterns will cause extinction of all listed anadromous fish in the Central Valley.
The draft BiOp also breaks down mortality rates for juvenile salmon attempting to find their way to the ocean. By the time they even reach the San Francisco Bay Delta, only about 20% are left. If they're lucky enough to stay in the mainstem Sacramento, their chances are much better than if they enter the maze of Delta channels and sloughs, including especially Georgiana Slough and the Delta Cross-Channel conveyance, which direct them towards the state and federal pumping stations near Tracy.
Imagine the Central Valley hundreds of years ago, before dams, levees, and pumps: vast marshlands, full of elk and waterfowl, with plenty of sturgeon and at least four huge runs of salmon: millions of fish for indigenous people and grizzly bears pretty much year-round.
The 49ers came first, of course, and the hydraulic miners among and after them hurt the streams badly from a salmon's perspective. Farmers followed on their heels -- damn, that land was fertile! If you could keep the river out of it, that is. You only needed a little dam on the creek, with a ditch, so you could water your crop without flooding it. Maybe a levee with some riprap to keep the river out.
The Bureau of Reclamation was formed in 1902 for the purpose of systematically draining these "useless" marshes and providing irrigation to facilitate the settling of the West.
Then along came the federal Central Valley Project with its big dams: Shasta in 1945, then Friant and Folsom, each an impassable barrier for salmon; and big canals to ship the water south.
Before Friant Dam was built on the San Joaquin, that river's fall chinook run was estimated in the hundreds of thousands; after Friant, forty miles of that river were dry. The State Water Project added Oroville Dam on the Feather River, with aqueducts and storage south of the Delta. Camanche Dam blocked the Mokelumne River, where as a kid I spent most trout openers with my dad. Not only did these dams totally block access to salmon spawning grounds, but they allowed the Bureau of Reclamation and the State Department of Water Resources to ship millions of acre-feet of Sacramento River and Delta water south, mostly to irrigate the arid San Joaquin Valley.
At least with Shasta, Oroville, Folsom, and Camanche Dams salmon hatcheries were built to mitigate for the lost habitat; those hatcheries could be viewed as custodians of the chinook gene pool, responsible for tending those genes until the dams rot and the fish can return to their original homes. But fall chinook are a lot easier to tend in hatcheries, so now that's mostly what we've got -- or had.
But what about the natural spawners? Aren't they most of the river run, most years, and aren't there a fair amount of spawning grounds still?
Well, yes. But to get to the ocean, their progeny have to make it past hundreds or thousands of water diversions, ranging from a few cubic feet per second to the huge Delta pumps of the Central Valley Project and State Water Project which are big enough to make the river flow backwards to the pumps instead of to the SF Bay. For far too long, most of these diversions were either unscreened, allowing salmon smolts to become fertilizer, or had screens which trapped and killed them.
Sometime around 1980, salmon fishermen organized by PCFFA decided to do something about the loss of millions of baby salmon to water diversions. We put a surtax (the Salmon Stamp) on the commercial license fee and formed a committee (the Stamp Committee) of trollers with a DFG advisor to work on restoration.
The Stamp Committee soon established and funded a program to truck the state's hatchery fish past the diversions and pumps, for release in the brackish water of San Pablo Bay. It also funded DFG screen shops to build, install, and maintain non-lethal fish screens on as many diversions as possible. Trucking improved the survival rate of hatchery-produced fish, while new screens cut the losses of Coleman Hatchery and naturally produced fish to diversions. However....
Little fish piped straight from a freshwater tank to the brackish upper Bay tend to be stunned and disoriented for a while. Birds, striped bass, and other eager eaters of baby salmon learned to regard a tanker truck with a pipe running into the bay as a big neon "eat here" sign. Meanwhile, increasing agricultural and municipal water demand meant that the river still flowed at times backwards toward the pumps instead of the Bay.
The Fisheries Foundation of United Anglers came up with the idea of releasing the little salmon into net pens to protect them from predators until they acclimated to brackish water. The Stamp Committee jumped on the idea, and in '93 a pilot project showed that net pen acclimation improved survival two or three times, and soon most of the state's hatchery fish were being trucked and released into net pens.
The trucks arrive early in the day and pipe the fish into the pens. The pens are then towed very slowly out into the bay, the fish are released, and the pens are towed back to the dock. By the time they're released, the fish are swimming more normally and are more alert, hence better able to escape being lunch. It takes about a month, five days a week, to get the job done.
Before anyone thought of net pens, back in the '80s, a bill called SB 1086 passed the California legislature. It called for the formation of a huge, cumbersome committee of stakeholders to identify major problems for salmon in the Sacramento Valley, prioritize them, and come up with proposals for solutions. And that's just what the committee did.
Their report identified 20 problems in order of severity, with tentative solutions and budgets included. All twenty items have long since been addressed. PCFFA received regular reports on the progress of the 1086 Committee from the late Mel Dodgin, who aggressively represented commercial fishermen there.
Before SB 1086, salmon fishermen participated in two major statewide battles over the "Peripheral Canal" and its equally ill-favored child, known as Duke's Ditch. Nat Bingham, for twenty years the public face of PCFFA, played a significant role in defeating these boondoggles, as he did later in ram-rodding through the successful winter-run chinook captive broodstock program, and in countless other battles.
In 1992, Congressman George Miller realized a major life goal with the passage of the Central Valley Improvement Act (CVPIA), strongly supported by PCFFA among many others, which among other features: 1) made fish and wildlife a dedicated purpose of the Central Valley Project (CVP); 2) provided, on paper at least, 800,000 acre-feet of water guaranteed to be kept in-stream for fish and wildlife, and 3) established a serious fund for major restoration projects, paid into by the water users and administered by the US Fish & Wildlife Service.
The cold-water release device in Shasta Dam that allows cold water drawn from deep in the reservoir to run through the turbines was then built ($60M), and ozonators (and de-ozonators) (another $60M??) were installed for Coleman National Fish Hatchery on Battle Creek, the mitigator for Shasta Dam. Operations at Red Bluff Diversion Dam, long a major contributor to baby salmon death by predation, have also been changed to allow free downstream passage most of the year -- though legions of enthusiastic and single-minded boat racers keep Red Bluff Lake in business during the summer.
But these projects weren't built until the political climate changed in the Sacramento Valley following the ESA listing by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) of winter-run chinook in 1995. After their Board and lawyers initially fiercely resisted any changes, (and after losing an ESA lawsuit) the members of Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District (GCID) staged a coup, replaced Board & lawyers, and made the big investment, assisted by dollars from the CVPIA pot, in replacing their obsolete, fish-entraining screen.
NMFS's ESA listing of winter run chinook, which PCFFA refused to oppose in spite of pressure from then-Southwest Regional Director Charlie Fullerton, and the later listing of spring run chinook, have been at least until very recently a big success story about which I at least have seen virtually nothing in print. Both runs were down to a few hundred fish at the time of listing, but following some political battles, with at least one non-cooperator being made a horrible example of a la Machiavelli, some substantial investments in infrastructure and a general change in attitude, both these severely depressed runs began amazingly rapid recoveries, with peak observed runs since ESA listing of 10,000 to 20,000 fish. We have called NMFS to task many times, deservedly, for failing in their mission to protect West Coast salmon runs, but they deserve more credit than they've received in these cases -- and so do the farmers and irrigation districts who helped make their comeback happen.
So, to summarize, the historically magnificent runs of California Central Valley (CV) salmon have been progressively hammered by agricultural and urban development, dams, diversions, and other side effects of "progress." But, thanks to a large number of mitigation and restoration efforts, and increasing expenditures of mostly (but not all) public money, all aided and abetted by California trollers, these runs have continued to be robust enough to provide successful commercial and sport salmon fishing off California and Oregon. The decade 1995 - 2005 saw an average ocean run of CV stocks of around 800,000 fish, with average returns to the Valley about 300,000 (the escapement goal tops at 180,000). In other words, these California Central Valley runs once powered a salmon fishing industry contributing several hundred million dollars/year to the economy.
But, after all these battles, many won, and after scores of projects large and small, after tens of millions of fishermen's dollars and hundreds of millions of public and water districts' dollars were invested in restoration and recovery, in a mere three years time the Central Valley fall chinook run went kerflop. The predicted ocean abundance in 2008 was 60,000 fish --- half the minimum number of spawners needed, less than 10% of the recent average, and far less than the minimum needed to allow any fishing on this stock. What the hell happened?
Let's acknowledge right now that there are a hell of a lot of variables affecting salmon survival rates, some of which we probably don't even know about. Good. Now let's look at some of the known variables, and see what we know about them during that critical period.
NMFS has just released a 60-page report, already mentioned here, whose Appendix does just this. Unfortunately its authors apparently were not in contact with the authors of the draft Central Valley Salmon BiOp, else they might not have been so eager to point first to ocean conditions as the principal cause of the collapse.
NMFS, however, has specifically excluded overfishing as a cause, (except for 2007, when more fishing was allowed than should have been with a more accurate stock abundance forecast) which squares with what fishermen know: these fish did not show up as age-2 sublegals in the ocean fishery, and they didn't return to the river as jacks. In other words, all available evidence indicates that the '05 and '06 brood year fall Sacramento chinook mostly failed to survive to age two.
High ocean surface temperatures and lack of feed have been cited as probable causes. But we have seen several years of high temps in the past; the fish respond by going deeper, into cooler water, where their feed is also more likely to be. True, we didn't see much krill in '06 or '07, but anchovies and sardines seemed abundant. I have seen ten-inch salmon attack six-inch herring. Years of looking at chinooks' stomach contents lead me to believe they will eat whatever they can get their mouths around, and pinhead anchovies and sardines will do quite nicely, thank you.
We were also frustrated by fairly constant currents out of the south in these years, which may correspond to less upwelling, and certainly meant on several occasions that the adult salmon we were seeking moved north, out of the areas open to us.
So, while ocean conditions were far from optimum, we've seen salmon endure worse and yet many more survive to be caught or to spawn. It's worth noting that the warmer ocean conditions of '05 and '06 are classified as much milder than the El Ninos of '82-'83 and '97-'98 by El Nino watchers.
Another confounder for the blamers of ocean conditions is the relative strength of the other Sacramento chinook runs, especially early in the fall run collapse. While the fall run ocean abundance fell from 850,000 in '05 to 435,000 in '06 and then 230,000 in '07 (the lowest in a data base that begins in 1970; '92 was next lowest at 314,000), late fall and winter runs were relatively consistent in those years, their numbers falling well within recent observed ranges. Spring run chinook numbers in '07, at 9,000 excluding Feather River, were about half of recent highs, but still among the highest observed since about 1990.
In '08, with fall run chinook at about one-quarter the previous year's then record low, late fall, winter, and Feather River hatchery springer numbers were about half the previous year's -- still well above lows observed since 1970, while springers excluding Feather River actually increased. (Yes, I'm comparing fall run chinook ocean abundance with in-river numbers for the other runs; it's the change in run strength over time I'm interested in here, and fishing has far more effect on falls than the other runs.) If ocean conditions were a primary factor in the fall run collapse, we'd better look for conditions short-term enough to wipe out the fall run without hitting the other runs.
It's also worth noting that the '09 Klamath age-3 population is expected to be about four times as large as the number of Sacramento fall run age-3s. Did they live in a different ocean? Poor ocean conditions also completely fail to explain the continuing poverty of SRFC stocks, since this year's nonexistent fish entered relatively good ocean conditions in spring '07. In short, there's nothing in the range of ocean conditions observed and lamented by NMFS that accounts for the catastrophic change in Sacramento chinook stocks.
What about fresh water conditions?
We know these fish had plenty of parents, both natural and hatchery spawners. While natural spawner numbers were down somewhat in '05 and '06, they were still over the 180,000 top of the escapement goal range, even before adding the hatchery spawner numbers, which were among the highest observed since 1970.
Hatchery releases were in the normal range, over 30 million. However, the net pens failed to operate in the spring of ''05 and '06, and the new net pens operated in '07 at a reduced scale. This failure is very likely a factor in the low survival rate of hatchery fish. (In the spring of '08 the new net pens acclimated a record 20 million smolts: hope springs eternal.)
The old net pens didn't get the maintenance they needed and became too decrepit to use. We share the responsibility for this one: we failed to oversee the overseers of the net pen project. But, we had decent fishing for many years before the net pens were even thought of. Have Delta conditions deteriorated to the extent that hatchery fish released into the Bay just don't survive without net pens?
One of the few factors that was different in these critical '05 and '06 years was the Central Valley "OCAP" water plan that allowed amped up Bay Delta pumping. Under this bogus water plan, pumping out of the Delta rose to record levels in these two critical years: over 6 million acre-feet. Take a football field to the Bay Bridge, stand it on edge, and drive it to Denver. The volume of air thus displaced is roughly equal to the volume of water shipped south from the Delta. That is a lot of water sucked out of the Delta when migrating salmon need it most.
These massive increases in water exports were a part of the OCAP water plan allowed by a 2004 Biological Opinion from NMFS which held, in its final form, that no "jeopardy" (a legal code word for extinction) to ESA listed Central Valley salmonids would result from such increases.
Oddly, the drafts of this 2004 Biological Opinion had all said "jeopardy." Then it was changed at the political appointee level to reach just the opposite conclusion from what its own data and the agency's own science showed would happen. When PCFFA and others challenged its legality, the US Federal District Court Judge saw that this change of conclusion was political rather than scientific.
Ironically, just three days after the Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC) announced the collapse of the Central Valley chinook runs and banned ocean salmon fishing in California and Oregon for 2008, this politically motivated NMFS OCAP BiOp "no jeopardy" opinion was soundly rejected in federal court as "arbitrary and capricious" and "not in accordance with the best available science." That Court has since required NMFS to rewrite it.
In December '08, NMFS issued a new draft Biological Opinion on Delta water operations. This draft says that continuing current practices will lead to the extinction of listed anadromous fish in the Central Valley, including several salmonids and green sturgeon.
The new draft BiOp also says that such a result would jeopardize the survival of Puget Sound ESA-listed orcas, which eat salmon in the ocean. But orcas don't pick and choose which runs of salmon they eat, nor do they ask the fish if they came from gravel or a hatchery. This language in the BiOp gives NMFS for the first time the authority and duty to protect not just the ESA listed runs, but also the non-listed fall run, including fall run hatchery fish, from harmful actions in fresh and brackish water.
The new draft opinion specifically fingers the Cross Channel Gate, a device which, together with the Georgiana Slough, lets water from the Sacramento River enter channels at the north end of the Delta that lead to the pumps. Hatchery fish released above this point survive to the estuary at about one-third the rate of those released below it.
Presumably the difference would be similar for naturally produced fish, which are almost all "released" above the cross-channel killers.
Also implicated are the Delta pumps, fish screens, and Clifton Court Forebay. After suffering about 80% mortality just getting to the Delta, survivors who are sufficiently lost -- and currents now tend to run towards the pumps, helping them get lost --enter the Clifton Court Forebay. There they suffer 60 to 99% additional mortality from predation before they encounter the screens intended to save them from the pumps, which operate at about half their intended efficiency.
From Clifton Court Forebay, screened fish are then "salvaged," which means mechanically collected, dumped into tanker trucks, taken to brackish water, and piped into that. Further mortalities occur at every stage of handling. The tiny fraction of the original downstream migrants left then must still transit the bay and enter the ocean, from which only another small fraction will survive to return as adults.
It appears that, given current degraded conditions in the Delta, only the hatchery-raised, trucked, and net-pen acclimated fish have any chance of surviving their exit from the Central Valley at rates that will allow them to replace themselves, and then only if ocean conditions are average or better.
It's pretty clear that conditions in the Delta have to change for the better if California's most magnificent salmon run -- and the West Coast's most productive ocean salmon fisheries -- are to survive. It's pretty clear that, in spite of all the efforts and expenditures of fishermen, agencies, and water users, conditions have been deteriorating, not improving.
The guarantee of water for fish and wildlife in the Central Valley Project Improvement Act hasn't been enough; the protections that come with ESA listings haven't been enough. If the fish cannot survive transiting the Delta, the hundreds of millions invested upriver to save them is wasted. Yet the draft BiOp envisions more pumping and more mortality in the future, not less.
The recent Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) Issue Paper, "Fish Out of Water," July 2008, uses data from the Department of Water Resources (DWR) to propose that up to 7 million acre-feet of water a year -- more than current Delta export levels -- could be available from four alternative sources: water conservation and efficiency; water recycling; groundwater cleanup and conjunctive use programs; and improved stormwater management. The City of Los Angeles plans to meet its increased needs from these sources, and to pay less than it would for getting that additional water from traditional sources. Why can't -- why aren't -- agricultural users doing the same?
The answer is that Los Angeles actually pays close to what its water is actually worth, while Central Valley ag users often don't. Agricultural users, especially CVP customers, thus have no economic incentive to conserve.
The CVP set up its operating rules some time before water demand began to exceed supply in California; its agricultural customers now pay only about $12 an acre-foot, according to the CVP website. State Water Project (SWP) customers pay much more, but most SWP water goes to municipal and industrial uses. However, Kern County Water District, SWP's biggest ag customer, recently bought a slug of water, as reported by Mike Taugher of the Contra Costs Times, through its Environmental Water Account (delivered in winter, when it's abundant, and stored pending summer demand) for about $30 an acre-foot -- and wound up reselling that same water to other users for over $200 an acre-foot. Oh, sorry, that's not right: we (the taxpayers) first bought each acre-foot for them for $30, they then resold for $200.
So to summarize: water from the California Central Valley pumps, which is water from the Sacramento River (and from the Trinity) is often so cheap that of course everyone who can will demand all he can, and pumping will increase to the detriment of salmon and other fish and wildlife as long as that is true. Some water districts can even turn this subsidized water right around on the market at 700% markup, making millions more by brokering the water than if they had used it for actually growing crops. Of course, that artificially cheap water price means that someone else is paying the rest of the real economic and environmental cost. Clearly that "someone" includes taxpayers, but also salmon and all the people who depend on them, along with other very valuable California fish and wildlife.
If we're going to have salmon in the future, it's long past time we took a hard look at the money. It's hard, not easy, because there's hundreds of millions if not billions still to be made from cheap water. Would you hop off the gravy train if you were on it? Who has the will, and the muscle, to make "change we can believe in" for the Central Valley?
The massive federally-subsidized CVP delivers about 5 million acre-feet a year to ag customers for about ten percent of the market value that SWP customers pay. If CVP rates were nearer market value, its customers, and potential new customers, might well find it worthwhile to look for more water from the "Virtual River" as Los Angeles is doing through conservation and recycling. Then salmon in the Central Valley might have a future after all.
Real change for the better -- change that provides for the long-term survival of salmon and other fish and wildlife (and, ultimately, our own survival) -- will require much more than new laws and rules. It will require fundamental changes in our values and our perception of our place in the world. In particular, if we cannot change the way we value water -- our most precious natural commodity -- in the marketplace, then goodbye salmon.
The citizens of California have three choices:
Continue Business As Usual. This means maximizing profits in the near term for industrial farmers, water districts, and developers, while allowing Central Valley salmon, sturgeon, and other fish and wildlife to go extinct, along with the billion dollar fisheries they sustain. Continuing indefinitely on this path probably means a population of 60 to 100 million Californians living cheek by jowl, with only the most valuable crops still being grown on greatly reduced acreage, much of the state's timberland subdivided, paved, and developed, and not much left of fish and wildlife.
In this scenario, George W. Bush turns out to have been wrong: people can't coexist with fish. It will also have us occasionally drinking, bathing, and washing our cars with mud when the over-stretched water system inevitably fails.
Develop Alternative Water Sources. On this path, we decide to leave sufficient flows in our rivers for fish and wildlife while meeting our growing water demand from other sources.
The California Department of Water Resources has estimated that as much as seven million acre-feet per year could be derived from a combination of improvements in water conservation and efficiency of use, groundwater management, water recycling, and urban stormwater management. The Metropolitan Water District of Los Angeles, finding that some of these methods are cheaper, especially in energy use, than methods currently employed to use water from the Delta, is already committing to these techniques to meet its future water demand.
If current patterns of growth continue, however, water derived from alternative sources will eventually also be fully subscribed or oversubscribed; what will we do then? Will fish and wildlife and agricultural water users have any chance politically against an urban population double today's?
Learn to Live Within Natural Limits. Or, we could apply our collective brainpower to developing a new and more sustainable economic model, one in which we can prosper without increasing our collective use of water and other resources.
This is the path down which we learn to tread more lightly on the land. It requires broad-scale commitment to lower water consumption, to develop renewable energy sources, to live less lavish lifestyles, and to put caps on rates of growth and development. This is clearly by far the most difficult path to choose now, especially when we can never see clearly very far ahead from "now," but it may be the only path that leads to long-term survival of our society.
It's not reasonable to ask people to make the kind and scale of changes described above simply for the sake of salmon, much less for the handful of fishermen who depend on them. But the continued existence of those fishermen shows that the fish are still with us, and as long as we have the fish perhaps we haven't gone too far down the path that leads to our own demise. But once the fish are gone, we may be too far down the wrong path to return and choose the survivable route.
Californians, which path will we take?
David Bitts is President of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations (PCFFA), the west coast's largest organization of commercial fishing families, and a long-time commercial fisherman operating out of Eureka, CA. PCFFA can be reached at its Southwest Office at PO Box 29370, San Francisco, CA 94129-0370, (415)561-5080, and at its Northwest Office at PO Box 11170, Eugene, OR 97440-3370, (541)689-2000 or by email to: firstname.lastname@example.org. PCFFA's Internet Home Page is at: www.pcffa.org.
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