These drought years have been tough on Central Valley salmon. While struggling winter-run Chinook salmon dominate the headlines, the fall-run Chinook that support the state’s ocean and inland fisheries have also been hit hard.
We know that all fish need water. But more water alone will not save endangered populations, nor will an over-reliance on hatcheries or the proposed effort to truck fish above Shasta Dam.
To save California’s salmon, we need broader solutions that foster self-sustaining populations and address the entire salmon life cycle. Trap-and-haul and other approaches that rely on taking fish out of the river and putting them in trucks are extremely expensive and cannot, by definition, be self-sustaining.
Real solutions will require fishermen and farmers, water suppliers, urban users, government agencies and environmentalists to take a clear-eyed look at California’s water systems, roll up our collective sleeves and implement practical actions to protect vital salmon runs for the long haul.
We may live in the Internet age, but we still rely on water infrastructure that dates from before the invention of the telephone. California’s water system was built more than a hundred years ago, when rivers and fish were poorly understood.
Fortunately, new research is showing that endangered fish species are not an inevitable consequence of development. To the contrary, the evidence clearly demonstrates that updating our water system with modern scientific tools will help fish and people. The old ways separated species from the environment. The new way integrates fish, wildlife and natural process into design and operation, and will create sustainable water solutions.
Research has revealed that the food to support Central Valley river ecosystems is made on floodplains. Juvenile salmon and other native fish benefit tremendously when given access to these food-rich wetlands. Recent breakthroughs have also shown that farm fields can be managed to feed fish and bird populations during winter and still be profitably farmed in the summer.
Unfortunately, more than 95 percent of Central Valley floodplains remain inaccessible to fish, cut off from river channels by outdated levees.
Now a collaborative effort among government agencies, conservationists, water suppliers and farmers is working to reconnect the Sacramento River to its largest intact floodplain: the Yolo Bypass.
The effort will get juvenile fish onto floodplain farm fields in winter, allowing them to find abundant food and get stronger on their journey to the sea. This win-win approach will reduce water conflict by enhancing habitat for a suite of endangered species – including endangered salmon and smelt – while sustaining agriculture and improving flood safety for people in and around Sacramento.
Another win-win retrofit is taking place near Knights Landing, where adult winter-run Chinook often take a fatal wrong turn into a maze of drainage ditches on their way upstream. Farm groups, conservation organizations and government agencies have banded together to make repairs that will prevent fish from straying. Similar projects are planned for the Yolo Bypass next year.
There are also efforts to restore spawning habitat in Battle Creek, near Red Bluff, by investing in stream gauges to monitor conditions and removing several dams so that winter-run Chinook get access to portions of this cold, spring-fed creek. Reintroducing winter-run salmon to Battle Creek is the best opportunity to re-establish a self-sustaining population within its native spawning range.
Real solutions for Central Valley salmon depend on our ability to collaborate and integrate current science into the way we manage California’s water. Only when we work together to build smart, multi-benefit projects that improve river conditions for salmon at every stage of their life cycles will we see real water solutions that support fish and people.
Jacob Katz is Central California director of California Trout, a native fish and watershed advocacy organization. John Brennan farms in Yolo, Colusa and Sutter counties and is an owner of Robbins Rice Co.