The Impending California Salmon Disaster

If Fish Could Talk...

Competing uses for water in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta watershed are putting the great salmon runs of California’s Central Valley in danger of disappearing. Two of the four seasonal salmon runs are already listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Water diversion for agricultural irrigation and other purposes is more than the Delta can sustain and it is having a devastating impact on recreational salmon fishing and businesses that depend on that fishery. As a result, the region’s salmon fishing seasons were completely shut down in 2008 and 2009. Though open, the 2010 salmon fishing season was severely curtailed. Without major changes in Delta and upriver water management, California’s Central Valley salmon fisheries are headed for a collapse. The environmental implications of this potential collapse will be devastating to the Delta and its human inhabitants. Despite the extreme environmental consequences of over-pumping, private interests, notably the San Joaquin Valley agricultural water contractors, are attempting to control even more of the public’s water.


A Disaster with Roots in the 1990s Historically, Northern California’s Sacramento and San Joaquin River watersheds provided ideal habitat to support large populations of salmon and steelhead trout. These salmon runs were second only to those of the Columbia River in the lower 48 states. Despite the construction of dams on most major rivers, most salmon populations continued to flourish. That is, until California began to divert large quantities of water from these rivers in the 1990s. Population growth and over expansion of agriculture put higher water demands on the Delta than it could sustain, with only eight percent of salmon and steelhead smolts able to survive the extreme changes when freshwater exports are at their highest.

Water for Profit – Not for Fish State and federal water pumping projects export millions of acre-feet of fresh water from the Delta each year for agricultural irrigation and municipal projects. At times this diversion is so high that it can actually reverse the natural flow of the San Joaquin River. Despite the extreme environmental consequences of over-pumping, private interests, notably the agricultural water contractors of the San Joaquin Valley, are attempting to control even more of the public’s water. Millions of dollars have been spent on lawsuits and campaigns to increase agricultural water rights. Not all of this water is being used to irrigate crops. Some contractors are selling their allocations for profit - selling a public resource at the expense of recreational fisherman and local communities.

What’s the Solution?

To mitigate the impacts of high volume pumping rates, fishery managers closed the salmon fishing season in 2008 and 2009 and severely curtailed the 2010 season. Despite fishery closures, the region’s salmon populations will not be able to recover until water management deficiencies are properly addressed.

The economic and social impacts of the salmon population crash and the closed fishing seasons are severe. An estimated 23,000 jobs were lost as a result of the closed 2009 season alone. For many of the region’s coastal communities, the recreational salmon fishing industry is the number one contributor to their economy. An economic study estimated a negative impact to California’s economy of $1.4 billion for each year that the season is closed.

A Conservation and Human Disaster in the Making

The Delta and upriver conditions must improve to ecologically sustainable conditions in order to recover the salmon and steelhead populations of the Central Valley. Two of the Delta’s four salmon runs are currently listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The Fish and Wildlife Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are required to evaluate any project that may impact ESA-listed fish and issue a biological opinion, which serves to minimize any adverse effects to the species and its habitat. In 2009, the federal government released new biological opinions for the two ESA listed runs, as well as other endangered species, that reduced pumping rates and corrected upriver habitat conditions for these fish. However, this did very little for the other, non-ESA listed runs. If all four runs are to be recovered, more change is needed. Agricultural interests have filed 13 lawsuits and introduced seven bills into Congress in an attempt to overturn the biological opinions. These lawsuits are being led by the California Department of Water Resources.

On December 15, 2010, six federal agencies issued a report calling for the restoration of wetlands and habitat in California and the construction of infrastructure for a reliable water supply. The federal report also calls for the completion of the California Bay-Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP), which will address the water needs of both California’s ecosystems and water infrastructure. The BDCP will provide guidance for a new water conveyance system that meets the requirements of the ESA. The completion of the BDCP is very important to the survival of California’s salmon runs. On May 11, 2011, Rep. Nunes (R-CA) introduced legislation (H.R.1837) that will repeal protections for the Delta under several state and federal laws as well as undermine important conservation measures in the BDCP. KeepAmericaFishingTM encourages all anglers to take action today to support the biological opinions and protect California’s salmon from ongoing and future attacks. ###