A Worst Case Scenario for Salmon

spechin_2_credit_michael_humling_usfwsIt’s all over the news. California has had four years of drought. Despite a wet winter, it wasn’t enough to undo the damage. And it’s not just the Golden State that’s affected; several states out West are trying to figure out how to share limited water and divide it up fairly. But they’re not treating this like a waiting game until more rain comes. Agencies and stakeholders are using the crisis as a chance to innovate.

Senator Feinstein of California has seen the toll drought is having on communities beyond just her state and the conflict it’s stoked. Like a seasoned member of Congress, she sought out to address the complex problem by writing a bill. The result is a 185-page document with significant impacts.

There’s a lot of good stuff, like improving water recycling and efficiency. What’s not so obvious is how utility and agriculture companies are the big winners. While “maximizing” the amount of river water to be pumped to the southern part of the state, species like Chinook salmon are hung out to dry.

Chinook salmon have lived in the Central Valley of California for thousands of years and are a major part of fishing businesses up and down the Pacific coast. In the past, ocean and weather conditions had a lot to do with salmon populations. Now, it’s mostly an issue of management. Drought and water mismanagement in 2015 contributed to the loss of over 95% of young, wild Sacramento River fall and winter run salmon. The way Sen. Feinstein’s bill proposes to manage water would threaten the survival of fisheries that are already dwindling.

The Senator’s bill weakens protections for salmon by allowing more water to be taken out of the river and transferred south. Less water flowing in the river system makes for poor habitat conditions, and as water is pumped out of the river, salmon can be caught up in the pumps and die. If Congress passes the bill, pumping will only become more common because water contractors would be permanently guaranteed water deliveries without the requirement for environmental review.

It’s vital for fish management agencies to have a say in what all of this highly controlled use of water would do to salmon. The current bill excludes any consideration of impacts to the fall run. The fall run is the only run out of four in the Central Valley that supports recreational and commercial fishing. For a quarter of the once-abundant salmon fishery to support thousands of fishermen is not sustainable. Evidence of this came recently when the Pacific Marine Fishery Management Council announced restrictions on the salmon fishing season by almost half of last year’s.

All the fishing industry would like on this issue is for Congress to acknowledge on paper that that there are many ways to reverse the trend in salmon loss and it doesn’t have to be a battle over every drop. There are solutions that don’t involve water. Those include restoring habitat, trucking salmon eggs and smolts downstream, and using better science at water storage facilities. Each of these programs have been well thought out and scientifically designed by the Golden Gate Salmon Association but need to be assured funding.

That’s why over 200 West coast businesses joined forces to send a message to Congress, urging Senators to oppose Sen. Feinstein’s bill – one that would strain marinas, retail stores, manufacturers, anglers, and many others that depend on healthy runs of salmon. The letter pointed out bad parts of the bill, and best of all, showed that fishing is important as a sport and as a job-creating activity, mostly revolving around small businesses.

Much of the West is choked for water. It’s clear we need to start acting on better ideas for how to keep water flowing both for fish and at the tap, but it’s not by favoring large, wealthy industries over others dependent on natural resources. Moments of crisis are times to make change, but based on what Sen. Feinstein brought forth, there are no signs of that happening for fisheries.