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The 20th Anniversary of the CVPIA - the Failure of Salmon Doubling

Barry Nelson

Posted October 29, 2012

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Salmon Index Blog Series

  • The 20th Anniversary of the CVPIA - the Failure of Salmon Doubling

Twenty years ago today, President George H.W. Bush signed the most visionary water reform legislation ever passed by Congress, the Central Valley Project Improvement Act.  On this anniversary, it is clear that the passage of the CVPIA marked a turning point in California water history and in federal water policy.  For example, the CVPIA established environmental protection and restoration as a CVP project purpose, co-equal with the CVP’s traditional water supply mission - 17 years before the state took the same step in the Bay-Delta.  The CVPIA created new policies to improve both the environment and water management – which explains the broad support the bill received.   Unfortunately, for the fish and wildlife the CVPIA was designed to restore, this anniversary also highlights the need for a dramatically improved agency effort to implement this visionary law. 

Implementation of the Act has flagged dramatically in the past decade.  In particular, the Act’s mandate to double naturally producing Bay-Delta anadromous fish has floundered.   The Act’s vision, its goals and the tools it provided are as important as they were two decades ago.  But federal agencies – as well as state agencies, which have a similar doubling mandate – must reinvigorate their efforts if we are to restore the Bay-Delta environment and a sustainable salmon fishery. 

The CVPIA included two sets of environmental and water management policies and programs.   This balanced approach attracted strong support for the Act, not just from environmental and fishing interests, but also from business groups like the Bay Area Council and Bank of America, as well as the Port of Oakland and water agencies including the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.   In today’s highly partisan Congress, it’s worth noting that the Act was authored by Democrats (Congressman George Miller and Senator Bill Bradley) and signed by a Republican President.    

First, the Act included reforms to encourage efficient water use, reflecting California’s contemporary needs.   The Act authorized farmers to voluntarily transfer water, providing a financial incentive to encourage efficient water use.  Prior to 1992, CVP water transfers to some parts of the state were actually illegal under federal law.  (Transfers have since flourished within the agricultural community in the San Joaquin Valley.)  The Act created a land retirement program to reduce water use on tainted land.  It established water metering and conservation requirements – also setting the stage for similar actions at the state level.  Most importantly, the Act mandated the reform of CVP water contracts, shortening the term from 40 to 25 years and requiring a reduction in agricultural water subsidies in the Bureau of Reclamation’s generous pricing policies.  NRDC continues to advocate the full implementation of the CVPIA’s contract reform requirements. 

Second, the Act included an ambitious package of reforms to achieve its environmental goals.  It directed the Bureau of Reclamation to protect fish and wildlife, to obey state law and to double the naturally producing population of anadromous fish, including commercially valuable Chinook salmon, compared to average populations from 1967-1991. 

To achieve this ambitious doubling goal, the Act created an Anadromous Fish Restoration Program (AFRP), dedicated 800,000 acre-feet of CVP water annually to environmental protection and created the CVPIA Restoration Fund to implement an ambitious list of restoration projects.  The Act also directed Interior to prepare a plan to restore the San Joaquin River – a provision that set the stage for NRDC’s agreement to restore the San Joaquin and its salmon run

The Act also provided guaranteed water deliveries for Central Valley wildlife refuges and wetlands.   Some of these mandated water deliveries have not been provided, as required by law. 

The Act directed the Department of Interior to achieve the salmon doubling goal by 2002.  And the Act got off to a decent start.  The Restoration Fund has supported 195 restoration projects, including the removal of dams and the restoration of flows on Clear and Butte Creeks.   The Restoration Fund paid for the Shasta Temperature Control Device, which allows Shasta Dam to generate power while controlling the temperature of water released, in order to protect downstream salmon.  The Act supported the screening of the Glen-Colusa Irrigation District diversion and the restoration of the Trinity River.  It also set the stage for decommissioning the Red Bluff Diversion Dam. 

In a few places, the Act has had produced real results for salmon.  For example, Interior’s salmon population numbers show that runs have improved on small streams such as Clear, Butte and Battle Creeks.  But those results are the exception, rather than the rule.  On nearly all of the major rivers of the Central Valley – the Sacramento, the San Joaquin, the Stanislaus, the Tuolumne, the Merced and the Cosumnes – salmon numbers have declined, not doubled, over the past two decades.   Of course, the clearest indication of the failure of agencies to double anadromous fish is the complete closure of the California salmon fishery in 2008 and 2009, as a result of crashing fish populations.  That crash also included declining populations of many other Bay-Delta species.   Simply put, the environmental health of the Bay-Delta system and its fisheries have reached a dramatic new low in the past decade.

How was this decline possible, given the CVPIA’s ambitious goals, policy reforms and tools?   One document provides compelling answers to this question.  At the end of 2008, an independent review of the CVPIA’s restoration program was completed.  The conclusions of this review, called Listen to the River are startling.

For example, the review concluded that “(t)he program effectively ignores the larger system problems that inhibit the natural production of anadromous fish,” including:

  • “highly regulated flows and diversions completely out of balance with natural flow regimes to which these species are adapted,” and
  • “environmentally degraded conditions for fish in the Delta, due to water exports….”

The review recognized that the AFRP plan “assigned the Delta the highest priority for action,” and that in the Delta, “direct and indirect juvenile mortality is uncertain but likely to be high, and may run as high as 50% for spring-run chinook and steelhead, and possibly 75% for winter-run chinook.”  Unfortunately agencies have done little to fully utilize the authority of the CVPIA to address these problems.

Specifically, the review concluded that:  “The agencies underutilized the authorities granted in the CVPIA to tackle some of the biggest problems in the system, especially concerning water management and the adverse effects of export pumping…the agencies appear to have interpreted their CVPIA authorities too narrowly in certain cases and underutilized others, especially with regarding to water management and project operations”.

The most striking language was reserved for the discussion of how agencies have managed the 800,000 acre-feet of “B2” water dedicated to the environment.   Reviewers were “flabbergasted” to learn that “(r)eclamation does not dedicate and manage 800 kaf of water from headwaters storage through the Delta.”  Instead, half of this water is “diverted out of the system.”  In short, reviewers confirmed that water “dedicated” to the environment is instead being diverted to CVP water contractors, at the expense of the environment. 

The review concluded that “(i)t is especially important to specify the flow regime in the lower river and through the Delta that is necessary for the biological requirements of anadromous fish.”  In remarkably direct language for a review of this type, scientists concluded that meeting CVPIA and ESA obligations will require “a significant reduction in the amount of water pumped out of the system.”

The review also criticizes the agencies for failing to integrate CVPIA implementation into the other agency activities.  A recent example can be found here in the BDCP.  (What, for example, is the BDCP strategy to contribute to the state and federal doubling program for all runs of Chinook salmon?)

It’s worth reading the Listen to the River review in its entirety, as it offers many other important recommendations.   We’ll offer more thoughts on these issues during the coming month. 

The conclusions of this review are as important as they were nearly four years ago.   Unfortunately, federal agencies have done little to improve the way the CVPIA is implemented. The review’s recommendations have been largely ignored.

On the 20th anniversary, it is time for federal agencies to respond this review, and to the collapse of the Bay-Delta.  It is time for the Department of the Interior to develop an approach to CVPIA implementation that is as visionary as the law itself.  The Bay-Delta environment, the state’s salmon fishery and the California public deserve no less. 

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John Q. PublicOct 31 2012 10:21 AM

A glaring omission from your summary is the fact that lawsuits have signifiantly constrained some aspects of CVPIA implementation. Case in point, compare DOI's 1999 policy to DOI's 2003 policy on implementation of (b)(2). By the way, CVPIA referred to dedicating YIELD, not water.

Deirdre Des JardinsOct 31 2012 03:31 PM

Kudos to NRDC for calling attention to the farce of the b(2) salmon doubling water. One of the most misleading claims about water use in California is that this 800,000 acre feet of water goes to the environment. In reality, every drop is pumped up and sent south to irrigate crops in the desert.

MikeNov 1 2012 06:50 PM

This author and others continue to point toward the flow of water through the Delta as the deciding factor in improving fish populations but they neglect to address issues that today's scientists are increasingly pointing toward as the cause of dwindling fish populations. Scientists from the Pacific Marine Management Council and the National Marine Fisheries Service have identified poor ocean conditions---warm temperatures and reduced food supply---as the leading cause of the salmon population decline. Results of these studies have been published in the last two years, which are much more current that any studies used to approve legislation 20 years ago.

The deadly impact of predatory fish such as striped bass on juvenile salmon is also absent in this article. In the past 20 years, which coincides with the passage of CVPIA, studies by the California Department of Fish and Game and UC Davis have shown a strong increasing trend in the abundance of warm water predatory fish in the Delta, including largemouth bass. These predatory fish create a "blood bath" for juvenile salmon as they make their way through the Delta to the ocean, according to fishing guide J.D. Ritchey in an article he wrote for Outdoor News ---

Consider also the refusal of the fishing industry, both commercial and recreational, to embrace proposals that would lead to the catch and release of wild salmon, thus protecting their populations. These groups have rejected suggestions that only hatchery salmon with clipped fins be caught and kept.

Furthermore, the four-year-old study the author refers to in citing that Reclamation "does not dedicate and manage 800 kaf of water from headwaters storage through the Delta" is another example of only providing part of the information. Discretionary authority is granted to Reclamation in its treatment of the 800 kaf of B2 water as upstream actions (increased releases for fish) and Delta actions (export cuts for fish). What the author fails to mention is that Reclamation routinely exceeds its B2 water budget ---

Continuing to claim that flows alone are the answer to the declining numbers of salmon fails to fully present the facts that scientists and others are dealing with in an effort to provide Delta ecosystem restoration and establishing a reliable water supply.

Mike Wade
California Farm Water Coalition

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