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State Water Board Reverses Emergency Order As Feds Cancel Salmon Season Openers

by Dan Bacher
Fish advocates note that because of the poor management of Sacramento and Klamath rivers by the state and federal governments during the recent drought, fall-run Chinook, spring-run Chinook and Sacramento River winter-run Chinook populations have collapsed, prompting the closure of ocean and river salmon fisheries this year.
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Responding to pressure by fishing and environmental groups and the changing water conditions as a series of atmospheric rivers entered California, the State Water Resources Control Board on March 9 reversed its emergency order that waived Bay-Delta water quality standards.

The emergency order on February 21, 2023 approved a temporary urgency change petition (TUCP) to modify requirements included in the water right permits and license for the State Water Project and Central Valley Project for the period of February through March 2023.

But the damage has already been done to salmon and other fish during a year in which fishing for Chinook salmon will be closed along the coast from Cape Falcon, Oregon to the California/Mexico border.

In a statement, the San Francisco Baykeeper said the order allowed agencies to “sequester water behind dams rather than let it flow into the Bay estuary,” causing environmental harm according to analyses from state and federal dam operators.

“The reduced flow of fresh water during February harmed commercial and recreational fisheries, and reduced survival of winter-run Chinook salmon and several of the Bay’s other imperiled fish species,” the group said.

The group said the order acknowledged the “importance of advocacy efforts as well as ongoing wet weather conditions that made the waiver meaningless.” The order stated:

“Based on the improved hydrology and in consideration of the public comments and the petition for reconsideration, this order finds that an urgent need for the changes no longer exists, the changes are no longer in the public interest, and the impacts of the changes on fish and wildlife are no longer reasonable.”

Baykeeper Science Director Jon Rosenfield said in a statement, "California’s ample winter rains and snowpack should have made it clear to Governor Newsom and his Water Board that there is no drought emergency this year, and that cutting water quality protections for fish and wildlife was not justified to begin with.”

"Unfortunately, lifting the order now won’t undo the damage that’s been done. The reduced freshwater flows in February harmed the health of the San Francisco Bay estuary, including endangered species like winter-run Chinook salmon, and damaged both commercial and recreational fisheries,” Rosenfield argued.

“Reversing the waiver of water quality standards because there is too much runoff to contain just a few weeks after waiving those standards under the guise of a 'drought emergency' demonstrates the Newsom administration’s ongoing failure to plan for California’s droughts and floods. The real emergency here is that Governor Newsom and his Water Board continue to enable unsustainable demands for water that repeatedly drain our rivers and harm our fisheries, whether it is wet or dry outside,” he concluded.

On the same day before the order was issued, a coalition of environmental groups – the California Water Impact Network, the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, and AquAlliance – submitted a notice of intent to sue the State Water Resources Control Board unless it rescinds an order to suspend water quality and fish protections in California rivers and the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta, according to a coalition press release.

The group described the order as “an end-run around state and federal legal requirements to maintain adequate water quality and temperature conditions for salmon below dams.”

The fish advocates and conservationists said they were enraged by the order, given 2023's abundant rainfall and snowpack and repeated cutbacks over the years in the reservoir releases that sustained the ecological health of the Sacramento River and its Delta, resulting in the collapse of California's iconic salmon runs.

"There was absolutely no need for the Governor to suspend critical water quality objectives simply to save water for delivery to big agriculture," said Carolee Krieger, the Executive Director of the California Water Impact Network. "It follows a long pattern and practice that appears intentionally directed against the fish. If there are no salmon, then it won't be necessary to enforce the laws protecting them.”

The groups said the notice of intent charged the State Board with violating a lawsuit settlement that constrained the agency from issuing certain suspensions to water quality, the California Environmental Quality Act, the California Endangered Species Act, California's "state of emergency" codes, and the public trust doctrine, a body of law that confirms critical resources such as water and fisheries must provide primary benefit to the people in common.

"It's an egregious violation of both the law and the state's obligation to uphold the public trust," said Chris Shutes, the Executive Director of the California Sportfishing Alliance. "Bad water management killed the 2023 salmon season by killing most of the fish. The baby salmon that are now in the rivers need every opportunity the law provides so they can survive and swim to the ocean and commercial fishers and sport anglers can catch them in 2024 and 2025.”

Krieger said Newsom's order also undermined flood control efforts by “maintaining excessively high reservoir levels during 2023's record storms and snowpack”.

Barbara Vlamis, the Executive Director of AquAlliance, said Newsom's recent order “extended a long record of disregard for water quality, fisheries, and public trust obligations.”

"This order follows the groundwater recharge projects that were embedded in the February extension of his drought order," Vlamis said. "Recharge programs for our groundwater basins are highly beneficial when they're conducted properly. But Newsom's approach enables the transfer of groundwater rights to private parties, essentially turning a public resource into a private cash cow.”

John McManus, President of the Golden State Salmon Association, also responded to the water board’s order to reverse the TUCP after his organization sponsored a petition asking Newsom to “rescind his recent order denying salmon the water they need to get to the ocean this year.”

“Yesterday, the governor's water board pulled the plug on Newsom's action, which is good for salmon,” said McManus on March 10. “We recognize that recent heavy rain and snow has shown how unnecessary the governor's action was and no doubt factored into the order being yanked. Notably, the governor's water board admitted that public comment and other actions opposing the anti-salmon order factored into its decision.”

Fish advocates note that because of the poor management of Sacramento and Klamath rivers by the state and federal governments during the recent drought, fall-run Chinook, spring-run Chinook and Sacramento River winter-run Chinook populations have collapsed, prompting the closure of ocean and river salmon fisheries this year.

The fishery closures will have a devastating impact on ocean commercial and recreational salmon anglers, river fishing communities and the Yurok, Karuk and Hoopa Valley Tribes on the Klamath and Trinity rivers, who have have depended on salmon as a central part of their culture and livehoods since time immemorial.

On March 10 on the recommendation from California and Oregon agency representatives and industry advisors, the National Marine Fisheries Service took inseason action to cancel ocean salmon fishery openers that were scheduled between Cape Falcon, Ore., and the U.S./Mexico border through May 15.

“The sport fishery had been scheduled to open off California in most areas on April 1,” according to a press release from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW). “The actions were taken to protect Sacramento River fall Chinook, which returned to the Central Valley in 2022 at near-record low numbers, and Klamath River fall Chinook, which had the second lowest abundance forecast since the current assessment method began in 1997.’

The Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC) has produced three regulatory options for the May 16, 2023, through May 15, 2024, time period. None of the three options would authorize commercial or ocean salmon sport fishing off California until April 2024. The alternatives were approved by the PFMC for public review on March 10. More information regarding the PFMC meetings and options can be found on the PFMC website at http://www.pcouncil.org.

Meanwhile, in the Klamath River Basin, the battle for water for salmon and other fish continues. On February 14, Department of Interior officials told Klamath Basin Tribes that flows to the river from the Klamath Irrigation Project would be reduced below the minimums described by the Biological Opinion that is supposed to govern Klamath Irrigation Project operations.

“These flow decreases will dewater salmon eggs putting ESA-listed coho salmon at further risk,” according to the Karuk and Yurok Tribes in a press statement.

“It should be noted that removal of the four dams will not impact the volume of water moving down the Klamath River; the operation of the Bureau’s 225,000 acre irrigation project further upstream dictates flow in the river along with accretions from Klamath River tributaries,” the Tribes stated.

“The Bureau claims that we are experiencing ‘extraordinary’ drought which gives them authority to cut the flows. This is despite above average snowpack and the fact it's currently snowing in the upper Basin. BOR claims that the water savings will be used to fill Upper Klamath Lake to benefit other endangered fish, the lost river, and short-nosed suckers,” the Tribes wrote.

“By presenting Klamath Basin tribes a false dilemma whereby they must choose between salmon in the river and suckers in the lake, Interior is continuing a long colonial tradition of cultivating division among tribal people while their natural resources are plundered to support an ecologically unsustainable industry,” said Yurok Vice Chairman Frankie Myers. “We should instead be focused on meaningful restoration of the wetlands that accommodated the needs of sucker and salmon for millennia that were sacrificed on the altar of manifest destiny.”
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