California Forum

Chinook salmon will become extinct if Californians don’t take these steps

A Chinook salmon smolt flips out of the water after being released into the Sacramento River from a tanker truck in 2014 near Rio Vista.
A Chinook salmon smolt flips out of the water after being released into the Sacramento River from a tanker truck in 2014 near Rio Vista.

A University of California and CaliforniaTrout study last month indicated that some species of salmon are in danger of going extinct by the end of this century. Their persistence in modern California is practically miraculous, given the profound alteration of rivers and streams.

To ensure these fish endure, with the added dimension of a changing climate, we must take strong steps. Salmon need help in the stream gravel where they hatch, the pools and floodplains where they grow, the Delta channels that carry them to the ocean, and the rivers they power up in order to spawn and die in the same gravel from which they emerged.

That is a big challenge, as 39 million Californians depend on these rivers and streams, too.

The state has developed a new Sacramento Valley Salmon Resiliency Strategy. It focuses on the Sacramento River and its relatively pristine eastern tributaries, which are kept cooler longer by Mount Lassen and Mount Shasta snowmelt and springs. These streams offer the best insurance policy for fish that evolved to use colder, higher-elevation streams now blocked by dams.

The strategy calls for removal of stream obstacles, improved flows, and reintroduction of the particularly vulnerable race of winter-run Chinook salmon to prime habitat.

The state also will restore the kind of languid, off-channel habitat that once harbored young salmon. We will improve passage in the Yolo and Sutter bypasses, which mimic the natural floodplains that once stretched for miles in winter.

We will put water on these engineered floodplains more frequently and for longer periods of time so that young salmon feed better and grow faster. The bigger a fish is when it swims into the ocean, the more likely it is to return home and spawn.

We also will remove or re-engineer obstacles such as culverts and irrigation gates so that returning salmon do not get trapped or stray into dead-end ditches.

The strategy describes immediate actions we must take, but it is part of a larger effort. State agencies have been working more than a year to get water users to voluntarily adjust flows and take other actions in the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers and their tributaries for the benefit of salmon and steelhead.

The State Water Resources Control Board will either incorporate such voluntary agreements as it updates its 20-year-old water quality objectives for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and San Francisco Bay – or it will impose new flow requirements on water users for the sake of native fish.

California also is involved in the effort to tear down four Klamath River dams that provide only marginal power and water supply benefits but harm the salmon runs that once sustained both Native American tribes and commercial fishermen. Around the state, we have removed dams and barriers, including the San Clemente Dam on the Carmel River.

We have installed fish ladders, set back levees to recreate riparian habitat, added gravel and woody debris to streams, and removed thousands of dump trucks’ worth of sediment from northern coastal streams in cooperation with landowners and timber companies.

Climate change will exacerbate the many threats salmon face. The 2012-2016 drought diminished streams all over the state, including the upper Sacramento River, where too-warm water killed winter-run eggs and young. This year, many miles of California coastline will be closed to commercial salmon fishing and allowable catch will be greatly reduced, compounding the economic losses already experienced in 2016.

Last month, our governor joined the Oregon governor in seeking a federal fisheries disaster declaration, a first step to bring aid to coastal communities that suffer as salmon populations shrink.

This decline hurts Californians economically, culturally, aesthetically and spiritually. To change the trajectory for these rugged fish, we must act.

John Laird is the California Secretary for Natural Resources. He can be contacted at