Federal regulators released a court-ordered plan on June 4, 2009 to protect California’s Chinook salmon. The plan will open dams and limit pumping of water from the rivers. The move has prompted a flood of objections from state officials because of the resulting reduction in water availability to California farms and cities.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation “provisionally accepted” the report from the National Marine Fisheries Service, saying they will “implement actions required to meet the needs of the listed species,” according to regional director Don Glaser. Formal acceptance of the findings will have to wait until the staff reads all 800 pages of the report.
Commercial fishing groups, still stinging from two straight years of fishing bans due to low salmon numbers, support the plan.
“All these people, all these small communities on the coast of California depend on these salmon for their livelihoods. Everybody needs these fish. We’ve got to put water back in the river.” Said Larry Collins, VP of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fisherman’s Associations.
The past 7 years have seen significant reductions in returning Chinook salmon to the Central Valley for their fall spawning runs. In 2002 the estimated run was 750,000 adults- in 2008, the estimate was 66,000. The decline is attributed in large part to low water levels in the river and higher water temperature. Both are attributed to the pump and canal systems that direct and redirect the water supply.
U.S. District Judge Oliver Wagner ruled last year that if water pumps and dams in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta continue their current operations, they will threaten Chinook salmon, forcing the California fisheries service to take another look at its upper Sacramento River and Shasta Reservoir management plan for the salmon.
The recent report from the fisheries service found that the Central Valley Project and State Water Project need to change their water pumping operations to protect a variety of fish species, including everything from the Chinook salmon to salmon-eating killer whales.
The report also said that salmon are trapped in the delta by dams and pumps on their way to the ocean. This is not news to fishing groups and environmentalists who have long claimed that salmon runs need more water and open channels.
The salmon are not the only species fighting for their lives, though. The fates of both people and the economy hang in the balance of this precious water source. The fisheries service estimated that water regulators will lose 5-7% of their current water supply, which is already limited. Current restrictions stemming from protection effort for the delta smelt have already reduced the water supply by 17-20% according to Ted Thomas, spokesman for the California Department of Water Resources.
Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger said in a statement that the move “puts fish above the needs of millions of Californians and the health and security of the world’s eighth-largest economy. The piling on of one federal court decision after another in a species-by-species approach is killing our economy and undermining the integrity of the Endangered Species Act.”
Schwarzenegger, California water regulators and lawmakers in the Central Valley also criticized the plan because it will limit the water available for Southern California farmers and residents, increasing the challenges to the Central Valley economy.
“If it were allowed to stand, this … would be a death sentence for large parts of California’s economy. Communities in the San Joaquin Valley are already experiencing 40 percent unemployment rates,” said Fresno-based Westlands Water District in a statement.
The Westlands Water District is the largest water district in the U.S. and is responsible for irrigation to much of the San Joaquin Valley. Wetlands also threatened to bring a lawsuit questioning the findings.
California officials argue that combining court-mandated restrictions on water pumping with multi-species protection is the best way to maintain water sourcing while protecting habitat for all threatened fish species.
State officials moved on Thursday to draft a plan that will do it all- protect the fish, preserve the delta ecosystems and create pumping level guidelines in accordance with both federal and state laws.
With the fate of both California’s Chinook salmon and agricultural economy in the balance, it seems that the wave of abundant water has crested, leaving lawmakers to decide who will be first in line for river use.