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One Fish, Two Fish - The New Bay-Delta Salmon Doubling Index and the Need for Improved Restoration Efforts

Barry Nelson

Posted November 13, 2012

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Salmon Index Blog Series

  • One Fish, Two Fish - The New Bay-Delta Salmon Doubling Index and the Need for Improved Restoration Efforts

This past Sunday, the California ocean salmon fishery closed for the year, making this a good time to take stock of efforts to protect and restore this iconic fishery.  In addition, this fall marks the 20th anniversary of the passage of the Central Valley Project Improvement Act, which called for the doubling of the Bay-Delta system’s wild salmon runs and which provided ambitious tools to achieve this goal.  

Today, to mark this moment, NRDC and the Golden Gate Salmon Association are releasing a new salmon doubling index, showing the successes and failures of salmon restoration efforts in the past 20 years.  Here’s what the index looks like, over the past two decades.

Salmon Graph.jpg

As my colleague Kelly Coplin explains here, this index was developed using the methodology employed by federal agencies, and is intended to present an accessible, accurate summary of progress made by state and federal salmon restoration efforts. 

Take a look at the above graphic. It tells a fascinating story.    

The CVPIA’s goal was to double salmon by 2002.  Implementation of the CVPIA got off to a good start.  Just five years after the passage of the Act, the index reached 63 percent of the CVPIA’s goal of 990,000 naturally produced adult spawning fish.  These encouraging numbers show that we can make progress and restore California’s salmon fishery and fishing communities when we set our minds to it.

However, a decade after the Act’s passage, everything changed.   From 2000-2006, export pumping from the Delta increased by 20 percent over the average pumping level for the previous quarter century.  This change had profound implications for salmon.  It reduced the cold water needed by salmon eggs and fry in the remaining spawning grounds below drained reservoirs.   And it increased losses of young outmigrating salmon in a Delta that became a death trap. 

The young salmon harmed by the increased pumping that begin in 2000 returned as adults to spawn three years later, starting in 2003.  As you can see above, that year marked the beginning of an unprecedented collapse of salmon runs that continued for seven years – reaching an all time population low in 2009.  As a result, in 2010, the three year salmon index hit another all-time low– just 7% of the state and federal doubling goal. 

In 2008, in response to a lawsuit brought by NRDC and Earthjustice on behalf of a wide range of conservation, fishing and Native American groups, a federal judge threw out the salmon biological opinion that permitted this increased pumping. That biological opinion was written to appease political interests, rather than on the basis of credible science. Interim protections imposed by the court, followed a year later by a new science-based salmon biological opinion, brought pumping levels down to a more sustainable level.  The graph above shows that, in 2011, when the young salmon that received those stronger protections returned to spawn, populations - and the salmon doubling index - began a modest uptick.  The numbers for spawning salmon in 2012 aren’t in yet, but they will continue this short, but encouraging trend.   (We’ll update the index when the 2012 numbers are released in 2013.)

This index illustrates a simple truth that often gets lost in complex Delta debates: fish need water, and the first step in reviving our ailing ecosystem is to restore adequate flows.  Of course, the remarkable correlation shown above is not the whole story.   The Bay-Delta is a complex system and salmon have a complex life cycle – nevertheless, this salmon index shows an extraordinary parallel between salmon health and Bay-Delta water management.   It’s important to note that there have been other factors in play as well.  Part of the recovery of salmon in the mid 1990s was due to the end of a long drought. Wet and dry cycles continue to play an important role in salmon populations from year-to-year. (This is one of several reasons we selected a three-year running average for this index.  This approach reduces year-to-year fluctuations, highlighting long-term trends.)   Poor ocean conditions have also harmed salmon in recent years, by reducing available food. 

But salmon have seen droughts and poor ocean conditions before – yet never reached the lows seen in recent years.  In addition, poor ocean conditions don’t explain the parallel collapse of species like longfin smelt and delta smelt that do not venture out into the ocean.  As my previous post pointed out, the Listen to the River review of the federal salmon doubling program described the relationship between salmon and flows in unmistakable language, concluding that meeting legal salmon protection requirements would require “a significant reduction in the amount of water pumped out of the system.”

It’s not that healthy flows are the only thing salmon need.  It’s that they can’t survive without them.   State and federal water agencies don’t control ocean conditions or droughts – but they do control Delta conditions and river flows provided for salmon.   They also control efforts to restore their damaged habitat.

The new salmon doubling index clearly demonstrates the need for renewed state and federal efforts to protect California’s largest aquatic ecosystem, to restore its salmon and other fish species, and to safeguard the communities and fishing families that depend on them.  Preserving California’s salmon fishing heritage is the Golden Gate Salmon Association’s mission. We’re pleased to partner with them in releasing this new index.

During the coming week, my colleagues and I will offer specific recommendations to reinvigorate salmon restoration efforts.  The most obvious first step is a reformed Department of the Interior CVPIA implementation effort that responds to the recommendations of the Listen to the River review, including the following:

  • Reforming the Department of Interior’s management of the 800,000 acre-feet of water that the CVPIA dedicated to the “primary purpose” of salmon doubling.  The independent reviewers who authored the Listen to the River report were “flabbergasted” at Interior’s convoluted approach to managing this dedicated water, which fails to prioritize fish needs. 
  • Allowing the science to drive decisions to restore salmon populations, including improving the use of science in managing the CVPIA Restoration Fund and habitat restoration efforts. 
  • Putting a manager in charge of a unified restoration program – who would be accountable for its performance.
  • Making dramatically improved efforts to improve conditions for salmon in the Delta. 
  • Integrating the CVPIA salmon restoration program with other efforts in the Bay-Delta watershed.  (This has obvious implications for the ongoing state-federal BDCP effort.) 

Restoring healthy salmon runs won’t happen overnight. But the good news, as shown by the graph above, is that, if we give salmon a fighting chance, they’ll come back strong.  These are magnificent, strong and resilient fish – but not if pushed past their natural limits.   Fortunately, I’m confident that, given California’s creative spirit, support for the environment, love for fresh, local salmon and for San Francisco Bay, the recent collapse of our salmon runs and the trends shown in the new Salmon Doubling Index will spark a renewed effort to restore this remarkable part of the Golden State’s natural heritage. 

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Mark RockwellNov 13 2012 04:03 PM

This new index done by GGSA and NRDC is very helpful to better understand the basic needs of salmon - habitat and water. It seems clear that there is a threshold for water export, beyond which salmon really suffer. It is also obvious that the threshold was exceeded during the early and mid 2000's. We need to re-commit to the CVPIA doubling goals, ensure that they are part of the BDCP decision process, and make sure that politics never again causes the near extinction of salmon. Much work is yet to be done, but this tool will be very helpful.

MikeNov 14 2012 02:11 PM

The "death trap" for salmon that the author claims was caused by pumping water to 25 million Californians and several million acres of farm land should more accurately be applied to the upswing in predator fish feasting on juvenile salmon. The California Department of Fish & Game, along with researchers from UC Davis, determined that in the years since adoption of the CVPIA that the numbers of warm water predatory fish, including largemouth bass, in the Delta has been on an upswing. There is no questioning the peril salmon face as they navigate the Delta to the ocean. The massive increase in predatory bass, which more than doubled over the last 25 years, has had a profound impact on baby salmon survivability --- More water won't change that.

The author conveniently references a 2008 lawsuit brought by NRDC and others that resulted in "a new science-based salmon biological opinion, brought pumping levels down to a more sustainable level." But the author does not reveal the final decision by the federal judge that was issued in May 2010. The judge stated, "Federal Defendants have acted arbitrarily and capriciously in formulating RPA Actions to protect threatened species under the ESA that lack factual and scientific justification, while effectively ignoring the irreparable harm those RPA Actions have inflicted on humans and the human environment." Consequently, the judge ordered federal fish agencies to redraft the salmon biological opinion. We're still awaiting those results.

Blaming the pumps as the primary reason for the low salmon population numbers is misleading and does a disservice to those who are seeking answers to problems confronting the Delta and its fishery.

Mike Wade
California Farm Water Coalition

Bill KierNov 15 2012 03:06 PM

Kudos to Barry Nelson for keeping an eye on the Government Accountability Office-mandated December 2008 review of the Central Valley Project Improvement Act’s Fisheries Program prepared by a panel of independent scientists (‘Listen to the River’ The scientists involved in this program effectiveness assessment, national experts in fish habitat and population restoration, say (at the bottom of page 41 and top of page 42 of their report –check it out) that they were ‘flabbergasted’ to learn how the water agencies were getting around Congress’ 1992 directive to ‘modify Central Valley Project operations to provide flows of suitable quality, quantity, and timing to protect all life stages of anadromous fish’. The scientists (and when was the last time you saw a panel of scientists say they were ‘flabbergasted’?) assumed at the start of their assessment that they would find, given that Congress had expressly mandated that 800,000 acre-feet of CVP water yield be reserved for habitat improvement, that the Bureau of Reclamation would use that 800,000 acre-feet of habitat water in a system-wide ‘water budget’ program similar to that used to get young salmon safely through the Columbia River dams system. Instead, they found that Reclamation was using about half the congressionally mandated amount to improve habitat conditions above the Delta – but then was pumping even that reduced amount out of the Delta, denying its use for young salmon trying to reach the Golden Gate and the ocean.
The review panel scientists might have been ‘flabbergasted’, but those of us who worked so hard on what Congress intended as a fundamental reform of the CVP 20 years ago – and effort to bring the Project into the 21st century – are simply disgusted.

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