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Central Valley | San Francisco | Environment & Forest Defense | Government & Elections

Drought Conditions Pose Grave Threat to Central Valley Salmon
by Dan Bacher
Friday Jun 28th, 2013 8:58 PM
Endangered Sacramento River winter-run Chinook salmon could be decimated this year, due to the draining of Shasta Reservoir to provide water sales from the northern Sacramento Valley to junior water rights holders south of the Delta. These sales proceed as the Brown and Obama administrations are fast-tracking the construction of the peripheral tunnels under the Bay Delta Conservation Plan.
Lack of cold water likely to be felt in future returns

San Francisco – Federal and state water and fish managers say the stretch of upper Sacramento River cold enough for salmon to successfully spawn will be less than half that needed this year.

"Salmon are expected to suffer because the water in Lake Shasta needed to chill the upper river for the fish is being drained for other uses," according to a news release from the Golden Gate Salmon Association (GGSA). "By late summer it is anticipated only about 20 miles of the Sacramento above Redding will be cold enough (56 degrees or less) for the fish to successfully spawn. Over twenty miles downstream of Redding, normally cold enough for spawning, is likely to exceed 56 degrees."

“Salmon eggs laid in northern stretches of the Sacramento River could die from overheated water this year,” said Golden Gate Salmon executive director John McManus.

As salmon face spawning failure in some sections of river, the federal Bureau of Reclamation has signed off on water sales from the northern Sacramento Valley to junior water rights holders south of the delta with official Findings of No Significant Impact. Junior water rights holders are those who were last in line to secure water contracts and whose supplies are assured only in very wet years. 2013 has been designated as a dry year.

“Based on pre-season forecasts and the catch so far this season, we are expecting a large return of spawners to the upper Sacramento River this fall. If anything, we need more cold water, not less if we expect to get the benefits of this large return,” said GGSA Vice-President Zeke Grader, who works on behalf of commercial fishermen. “The transfer of this water, needed by salmon, south this summer will have significant and devastating impact.”

Sacramento River’s fall-run chinook salmon account for nearly 90 percent of California’s salmon catch in a typical year and provide upwards of 50 percent of Oregon’s ocean salmon harvest. This year’s catch has been the best in over a decade, largely because of wet years and better in-river conditions the past three years. California is expected to be the largest chinook salmon producer on the coast and the fish are in high demand. This could change in 2015 and after if flows and cold water for the salmon are not protected.

The once abundant Sacramento winter and spring-run chinook salmon numbers have declined due to habitat and flow losses and require special legal protection under the Endangered Species Act.

Earlier this month the Bureau of Reclamation stated in a letter to the state water board that spring-run and fall-run chinook salmon spawning typically occurs further downstream in fall then the point in Redding, where the 56 degree water cutoff is. The Bureau warned…” some adverse effects can be expected if temperatures exceed 56 degrees between Airport Rd and Balls Ferry.”

Balls Ferry is about 7 miles downstream of Airport Road and a known fall run salmon spawning area. Water and fishery managers are instructed by federal law to maintain the 56 degree temperature downstream of Balls Ferry during the winter run spawning and incubation months of August, September and October.

In 2009, faced with a similar situation, the National Marine Fisheries Service warned that 50 to 75 percent of that year’s winter run could be lost due to hot water in the upper river. Very few progeny of the 2009 winter run survived. Low winter run numbers in 2012 put the fish in further jeopardy and led to steep cuts in the ocean fishing season this year, even though fishing is not the cause of the winter run shortage.

“GGSA is working to get the best deal we can for salmon this year and to avoid these situations in years to come,” said McManus of GGSA.

The National Marine Fisheries Service joined the federal Bureau of Reclamation and the US Fish & Wildlife Service in a joint request to the State Water Resources Control Board to reclassify delta salinity measurement stations from dry to critically dry. Although this was done to preserve water for salmon spawning, it also withholds water needed to keep the Delta and bay estuary healthy.

Winter run salmon faced another obstacle earlier in 2013 when over 300 were rescued from agricultural canals they mistakenly swam into near Williams. Officials estimate another 300 were never captured for relocation and will likely die in the canals without successfully spawning.

“Winter run salmon could be decimated this year,” said McManus. “We’re already concerned about what kind of return we’ll see in 2015 due to the drought conditions juvenile salmon faced trying to out migrate down the Sacramento River and through the delta earlier this year. We could see some real problems in the fishery a few years from now.”