At an informational hearing last week to address drought impacts on salmon fisheries, state lawmakers blasted the Newsom and Biden administrations for not repealing Trump-era policies before California entered another drought.
“We're witnessing the collapse of this iconic species right in front of our eyes,” said Senator Mike McGuire of Healdsburg. “Never in our nearly 50-year existence has this committee contended with such a dire situation.”
The Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) estimated the lack of a cold-water pool could lead to 100% of endangered winter-run Chinook salmon in the Sacramento River dying this year. Lower river flows trigger warmer temperatures in the river, which stress fish and elevate juvenile mortality and egg loss, explained CDFW Director Chuck Bonham, who testified at the committee hearing.
James Stone, who heads the Nor-Cal Guides and Sportsmen’s Association, said the Central Valley salmon fishery in 2002 propelled a $90 million annual industry but was down to just $2 million last year.
McGuire, who chairs the joint committee, called this a direct result of the Trump administration easing regulations.
“Federal water policy shifted here in California to push water that was once stored behind California's reservoirs to the Central Valley,” said McGuire. “California—and candidly, the current administration—has maintained this abysmal policy.”
He called the biological opinions a dark cloud hanging over the survival of the salmon species.
“The current biological opinion is good for agriculture, bad for fish and bad for the environment,” said the North Coast Democrat, who has often defended his district’s small dairy and cannabis farmers in committee hearings. “That was ramrodded through and made it nearly impossible for this species to be able to survive a pretty bad year.”
Assemblymember Mark Stone of Scotts Valley, who co-chairs the committee, agreed that federal policies have driven fisheries to extinction and “unwound” California’s conservation efforts over the years.
Eileen Sobeck, executive director of the State Water Resources Control Board, acknowledged the opinions have changed the approach of the federal Central Valley Project. But she defended the board’s actions to protect salmon this year.
“The board felt that it did the best that it could … to come up with what it thought would be an appropriate carryover target at Shasta to provide a source of cold water that would benefit fish and also carryover storage for next year,” said Sobeck. “We've been somewhat disappointed that the predictions about operations and dry conditions have been even worse than our conservative predictions.”
Bonham added that California did sue the Trump administration over the 2019 biological opinions for endangered fish in the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta watershed.
“That litigation was brought in part because of our judgment that the salmon protections in the federal approach were insufficient,” he said.
Bonham also pointed out that the federal government last month told a federal court that the Bureau of Reclamation has committed to reinitiating by October consultation on the opinions under the Endangered Species Act, which will result in new or amended opinions.
CDFW has also worked with the Department of Water Resources to adopt a new State Water Project permit with more specific triggers to protect salmon, Bonham explained.
“We have literally put the pedal to the metal to release our cold-water storage down to the Central Valley,” insisted McGuire. “The cold-water pool in Lake Shasta simply isn't going to be there this year because of that federal policy.”
Bonham pointed out that the dry conditions, exacerbated by climate change, are currently affecting 96% of seven western states and could rival the Dust Bowl.
“This is a super serious and bleak situation for salmon across the state,” he said. “I'm also more worried, to be honest, as we head into next year. Our standard methods of evaluation aren't keeping up with these cascading climate effects.”
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Another year of trucking 17 million salmon to the San Francisco Bay due to the low water levels would not be “the soundest strategy” if 2023 and 2024 are dry as well, he added.
“We have a legitimate set of almost no-way-out decisions,” explained Bonham. “That scenario puts us—and particularly the water board—in a place none of us have ever been. What's it like to have bare minimum for public health and safety and not much else for anything?”
Following Bonham’s testimony, Barry Nelson, a policy representative for the Golden State Salmon Association, brought the issue back to Trump.
“The salmon die-off this year on the Sacramento River is not caused by drought. It's not caused by climate change. It's caused by water management,” said Nelson. “The state water board has permitted the bureau's fish kill this year.”
Nelson recommended the board take enforcement action against the bureau over Shasta Dam operations and reject any voluntary agreements over Bay-Delta flows in favor of approving the board’s more aggressive Bay-Delta Plan.
Kate Poole, who directs water policy for the Natural Resources Defense Council, argued the state also failed to plan for or predict recurring droughts and instead chose to “prioritize water deliveries to big agribusiness over protecting salmon and California's fish and wildlife.”
“Much of the deliveries going to agribusiness in the Sacramento Valley this year are to flood irrigate literally hundreds of square miles of rice farms,” said Poole. “We shouldn't be doing flood irrigation, certainly not in a year like this one. We should grow other crops that aren't as water thirsty.”
According to Sacramento River Settlement Contractors, Northern California rice farmers agreed last fall to delay diversions due to the low storage levels. With reduced allocations, they planted 25% less acreage this year. Further strains on the system led to an additional 10% of fallowing, and farmers volunteered more cutbacks to provide junior water right holders with permanent crops with enough water to make it through the year.
Noticeably absent from the committee hearing to defend farmers were any agricultural representatives selected to testify. Republican Asm. Megan Dahle of Lassen County, who runs a seed and trucking business with husband Sen. Brian Dahle, serves on the committee but was not able to attend. According to her office, the assemblymember has been occupied with a rash of wildfires and other emergencies in her district.
Republican Sen. Jim Nielsen of the Sacramento Valley was also absent, along with three Democrats on the committee. The hearing took place in Sacramento during the Legislature’s summer recess, after lawmakers had returned to their districts.
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