The Bay Institute responds to Sacramento River Settlement Contractors

Sacramento River Settlement Contractors will receive full deliveries of water this year at the expense of the salmon runs, they say

From The Bay Institute, in response to Sacramento River Settlement Contractors frustrated by delay in implementing the Sacramento River operations plan for summer

bay instituteThe Bay Institute agrees with the Sacramento River Settlement Contractors that it has taken the Bureau of Reclamation and the State Water Resources Control Board far too long to come up with a 2016 temperature management plan for the Sacramento River’s imperiled Chinook salmon. That it will take Reclamation and the State Board until early July to finalize a plan for protecting Sacramento River salmon is particularly difficult to understand given that:

  • endangered winter-run Chinook salmon spawn downstream of Keswick Dam near the start of May every year,
  • threatened spring-run Chinook salmon begin migrating into the Sacramento River and its tributaries during the spring every year, and
  • the last two years saw utter devastation to salmon populations spawning in the Sacramento River, due to the Bureau’s own mismanagement of its water supplies and temperature plans.

We also agree that the federal agencies and State Board should focus on protecting more than just the winter-run Chinook salmon; long-term mismanagement of the state’s main commercially viable Chinook salmon run — Sacramento River fall-run Chinook salmon  — has led to extreme cutbacks in the commercial fishing season and great cost to fishing-related businesses across northern California. This situation was exacerbated by mismanagement of water supplies during the last several years of drought. Reclamation and the State Board must develop plans that protect fall-run salmon before those fish begin to migrate into the Sacramento River and spawn later this year. Then the agencies must implement the plan so that it is effective, something they have failed to do over the past several years.

We can’t agree, however, with the Contractors’ complaint that the agencies agreed to maintain 56°F daily average temperatures at Balls Ferry on the Sacramento River. In fact, the best available science (as compiled by the US EPA) indicates that daily maximum temperatures in excess of 55°F are harmful to developing Chinook salmon eggs – the 56°F daily average standard risks further damage to a population that is already at grave risk of extinction. Claims that water management was less restrictive in prior years with similar storage conditions are misplaced – lax protection in those earlier years, and particularly during the recent drought, have led us to the dire situation faced by our salmon today. Recognizing that winter-run Chinook salmon are closer to extinction than they have ever been, the National Marine Fisheries Service earlier this year required that Reclamation meet the more protective 55°F temperature criterion, and Reclamation agreed. But now, in a familiar pattern, Reclamation claims that it cannot meet the standard – so protections for the winter-run Chinook salmon have been relaxed (even though their eggs are already in their gravel nests).

Had Reclamation and State Board acted to protect the public’s fisheries (as both agencies are required to do), they would have developed a temperature management plan for each of the Sacramento River’s distinct salmon populations before the spawning season began and they would have applied a more protective temperature standard. Instead, the Sacramento River Settlement Contractors will receive full deliveries of water this year at the expense of the salmon runs. We can only hope that Reclamation’s assurances regarding its ability to provide cold water throughout the salmon incubation season are not faulty, as they so frequently have been.

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