As the delta goes, so go our salmon
Sunday, July 5, 2009
This salmon smolt is one of 550,000 released into the bay...
California is without its salmon for a second year. Prospects for the reopening of the season next year are encouraging, but the future of this iconic fish beyond that is uncertain.
Pacific salmon - born in free-flowing streams, reared in rivers before going to sea and then returning to their natal streams to spawn and die - face innumerable threats. These include predators - larger fish, birds, marine mammals and man - and the whims of nature.
Civilization has presented its own challenges to these fish. Large dams now block or impede their passage on most major salmon rivers. Mining and logging operations have devastated salmon habitat. Diversions have dried up streams or caused water temperatures to rise to lethal levels.
About 90 percent of California's salmon, however, face another problem: the decline of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta/San Francisco Bay estuary, the migratory path where the fish need to grow and gain strength before heading to sea.
Much of the estuary's shallow-water habitat, where salmon fed and hid from predators, has been lost. Municipal and agricultural discharges have polluted the waters, and invasive species have adversely affected the estuary's ecology.
But the single largest problem for salmon migrating through this estuary between Sierra streams and the Pacific is the amount of freshwater that is withdrawn - upstream and within the delta. In some years, more than 50 percent of the freshwater headed for the estuary is diverted.
Baby fish become caught in the massive state and federal pumps, and even more become lost within the delta and are easy targets for predators when their migratory route is no longer west to the sea. Trucking to the bay is now afforded hatchery salmon but not for the progeny of natural spawners migrating through a nursery transformed to a gauntlet.
The estuary is dying. California has long viewed the delta as a massive reservoir it could endlessly plumb for agriculture and development. Water "wasting" to the sea is seen as a massive leak. In reality, the delta is an ecosystem - it is our Everglades, our Chesapeake Bay. An estuary's lifeblood is its freshwater inflow mixing with saline tidal flows to create a rich, brackish water that nourishes salmon, crabs, sole, oysters and shrimp.
As the estuary dies, so do California salmon. Another icon is lost. Salmon, however, are different from grizzlies or bald eagles.
These wild fish are what sustained California's native peoples for 10,000 years. They fed the miners headed for the gold fields. They are fine dining, the purpose of a day's ocean excursion, what we grill on the Fourth of July. They are food, jobs, recreation and part of who are on the Pacific Coast.
So we have a choice: Are we going to destroy our salmon or restore them? Restoring California's salmon fishery begins with the delta. We can reallocate flows to the estuary, as the science recommends, or continue business as usual - diverting more from the delta or grabbing flow upstream through a peripheral canal. The better choice, it seems, is to develop sources of water outside the delta, saving the estuary and creating a truly reliable water supply. In the end, sustaining salmon might sustain California.
LEGISLATION Protect water, protect fish
California isn't only out of money; it's out of water. Next week, the Legislature will take up a package of bills to find a way to create a more reliable water supply in the state. Here's a summary.
Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto: The bill establishes the Delta Ecosystem and Water Council to advance two equal goals: restoring the delta ecosystem and creating a more reliable water supply in California. The bill is scheduled for a hearing by a joint session of the Assembly Water, Parks and Wildlife and Senate Natural Resources and Water committees on Tuesday.
Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael: This bill requires development of a new plan for the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta that implements the Delta Vision Strategic Plan issued by the Delta Vision Blue Ribbon Task Force. The plan calls for improving the existing water channel through the delta to move the water south and creating a second channel to carry the water around the delta to the pumps that export the water south. The document refers to the channel as a conveyance facility. In years past, this idea was referred to as the peripheral canal.
Assemblymen Mike Feuer, D-Los Angeles, and Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael: Requires a 20 percent reduction per capita in urban water use by 2020. This bill is scheduled to be heard Monday in the Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee.
SB457 and SB 458
Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis: This bill requires the Delta Protection Commission to review all general plans of cities and counties within the delta protection area. This bill authorizes the commission to cover the cost of the review by imposing a per acre-foot fee on any water diversion within the delta watershed, and a fee on any water conveyed through or around the delta.
Zeke Grader is the executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fisherman's Associations, which represents 14 commercial fishing groups.