As many as half of this year's endangered Sacramento River winter Chinook salmon run may have perished in irrigation ditches, according to information disclosed in a federal agency report, a state agency report and an independent scientific assessment.
To compound the problem, the weakened survivors face being hammered by the mismanagement of cold water releases from Shasta Dam by the state and federal government.
The late Hal Bonslett, the founding Publisher of the Fish Sniffer magazine, and I spent many hours going to meetings and writing articles in the late 1980s advocating for the listing of the winter run Chinook under the Endangered Species Act.
Now here we are over two decades later watching the state and federal agencies imperiling the winter run Chinook salmon that once thrived in the McCloud River watershed, the ancestral homeland of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe, before Shasta Dam was built. It is outrageous that the agencies entrusted to protect these fish have failed miserably to do their job once again.
Bonslett, the Sacramento River Preservation Trust, the Tehama Fly Fishers, other conservation groups and I supported the listing because the numbers were so low that something drastic needed to be done to save the once abundant fish.
Yet in spite of being listed, large numbers of endangered winter-run Chinook salmon and other species this April, May and early June were drawn into channels in the Yolo Bypass and Colusa Basin and died, according to reports by California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) and National Marine Fisheries Service biologists (NMFS).
“The total number of stranded fish is unknown but agency biologists said it could be as high as half of this year’s returning population of winter-run,” said Bill Jennings, Executive Director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance. “This tragedy is exacerbated by high temperature stress on spawning winter-run caused by mismanagement of limited cold water pools in Shasta Reservoir this year.”
Agencies have known about the annual stranding for decades
Jennings said state and federal fish agencies have known and documented for almost two decades that up-migrating endangered and threatened fish on the Sacramento River, including winter-run, spring-run Chinook salmon, steelhead and green sturgeon are drawn into the irrigation and drainage waterways of the Yolo Bypass and Colusa Basin from which there is no exit and are trapped.
"Excepting sporadic rescue efforts, little has been done to address this longstanding problem," said Jennings. "This is an indefensible failure to protect species hovering on the brink of extinction. The fact that our fishery agencies have long been aware of this problem but done little to correct it is appalling and borders on criminal culpability, especially, when there are obvious and workable solutions.”
Jennings said large numbers of salmon were identified in the maze of creeks and canals in the Colusa basin west of the Sacramento River. More than 300 fish were rescued from Hunter, North Fork Logan and Stone Corral Creeks, Colusa Trough and Delevan National Wildlife Refuge and returned to the Sacramento River.
"Because of their degraded condition, there was concern that these fish would not successfully spawn," observed Jennings. "Stranded salmon were also observed in other creeks, including Willow and Funks Creeks, the main stem of Logan Creek, Provident Main Canal and the North East Drain but no rescues were attempted. Members of the public reported salmon at other locations but CDFW staff were not able to get around to them."
The stranding of winter run salmon and other imperiled fish species is a recurring problem. For example, in 2011, NMFS biologists rescued more than 200 listed green sturgeon, spring-run Chinook salmon and steelhead trout from the Yolo and Sutter bypasses. Many others were not rescued and perished.
“Measures to address stranding in the bypass were proposed by the Anadromous Fisheries Restoration Program in 1995, by the CalFed Record of Decision in 2000 and by the NMFS OCAP Biological Opinion in 2009, among others, and all we have is yet another proposal for a band aid solution they hope might be in place by 2017,” said Jennings. “Winter-run salmon may be cavorting with passenger pigeons by then.”
Massive water exports threaten salmon
Winter-run salmon have been hard hit with a "double whammy" this year, said Jennings. The State Water Resource Control Board recently gave the Bureau of Reclamation permission to move the temperature compliance point for Shasta cold-water releases on the Sacramento River from Red Bluff upstream to Anderson, eliminating 10 miles of the 20 miles of available spawning habitat for winter-run salmon.
Beginning in September and October, spawning fall-run and threatened spring-run salmon could also be hammered by high temperatures. The cold-water pool behind Shasta Dam has been seriously depleted by demands to export water to south-of-Delta farmers. Water exports are averaging more than 17,400 AF daily.
Big water releases continue down the Sacramento, Feather and American rivers, even though we’re in a drought year. Releases from Keswick Dam into the Sacramento are 14,250 cfs, releases from Lake Oroville into the Feather River are 5500 cfs and releases from Nimbus Dam into the American River are 2750 cfs.
“A record run of salmon is at risk on the Klamath River unless anticipated flows from Trinity Reservoir are provided to cool the Lower Klamath,” said Tom Stokely, an analyst for the California Water Impact Network (C-WIN), a statewide water advocacy group.
“But we have another disaster unfolding on the Sacramento River. We had a dry winter, the reservoirs are low, and federal and state officials are draining them rapidly to pump water to the corporate farms of the western San Joaquin Valley. If the current releases continue, we’re not going to have enough cold water in the Sacramento system to keep fall-run Chinook salmon eggs alive in the gravel this fall," noted Stokely.
Historically, more than 200,000 adult winter-run salmon returned up the Sacramento to spawn and numbered more than 117,000 as recently as 1969. Shasta Dam eliminated the majority of historical spawning habitat and their numbers plummeted to around 200 fish by 1991.
My outrage over the precipitous decline of the winter Chinook in fact spurred me in 1991 to write a song about the fish, "The Ballad of the Winter Chinook," that I performed at a number of venues throughout Sacramento and Northern California.
The once abundant species was listed as “endangered” in 1994 after being listed as “threatened” in 1989. Adult winter-run salmon numbered 1,533 fish in 2010, increasing slightly to 2,529 in 2012.
Jennings said runoff from a million acres of farmland in the west Sacramento Valley drains into the Colusa Basin Drain. Augmented by rainfall, this water either discharges into the Sacramento River at Knights Landing or it flows via the Knights Landing Ridge Cut into the Yolo Bypass and ultimately discharges into Cache Slough and the Delta. Up-migrating fish that are attracted into the Bypass and Colusa Basin are stranded and perish because there is no exit.
“CSPA’s fisheries consultants believe it is necessary to establish screens or barriers that will prevent up-migrating salmon from entering the Toe Drain and/or Colusa Drain during critical migration periods,” Jennings concluded. “During high flow events when Sacramento water is spilling at Fremont Weir into the Yolo Bypass, a conveyance system must be constructed to enable fish to cross Fremont Weir back into the river. At all times, salmonids, sturgeon and steelhead must be prevented from entering Ridge Cut into the Colusa Basin.”
Similar problems exist on the eastside of the Sacramento at the Moulton, Colusa and Tisdale weirs in the Sutter-Butte Basin where fish were also reported stranded this year but no rescues were attempted.
For more information on solutions to the recurring fish stranding problem, see "Colusa Basin Drain Fish Stranding and Rescues Workshop Notes and Comments," July 2013, prepared by Thomas Cannon, fishery biologist: http://calsport.org/....
Fish passage above Shasta Dam is needed to restore salmon
Another solution to winter run Chinook recovery discussed in the federal biological opinion on Central Valley salmon is getting the fish above Shasta Dam into the cold, glacial-fed waters of the McCloud.
Winter run Chinook salmon historically spawned in the McCloud River that drains the Mount Shasta glacier. Eggs from the Livingstone Stone fish hatchery were shipped to New Zealand around the turn of the century and a thriving winter salmon fishery was created in the Rakaira and other rivers.
The Winnemem Wintu Tribe has proposed implementing a creative plan to reintroduce the original winter run from New Zealand to spawn in the McCloud above the Dam. The fish would get above the lake via the construction of a channel between a tributary to the Sacramento below Shasta Dam – Cow Creek – and Dry Creek, which flows into Shasta above the dam.
“The current cold water pool from Shasta Dam to Red Bluff does not produce the salmon populations that was promised, so how can anyone believe it will produce more salmon or re-establish if it reaches a bit farther on the Sacramento River with the raise of Shasta Dam,” said Caleen Sisk, Chief of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe. “How come the Shasta Dam raise options don't include a plan of how the salmon can get around the dam and into the McCloud River?”
As this salmon crisis continues, Governor Jerry Brown is a mad rush to construct twin peripheral tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to deliver increased water exports to corporate agribusiness and oil companies. The building of the tunnels, under the authorization of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP), would result in the extinction of Sacramento River Chinook salmon, Delta and longfin smelt, green sturgeon and other fish species.
"The common people will pay for the tunnels and a few people will make millions," said Sisk. "It will turn a once pristine waterway into a sewer pipe. It will be bad for the fish, the ocean and the people of California.”
“The Winnemem Wintu Tribe supports No Tunnels – No Shasta Dam Raise! There should be billions of dollars spent for cleaning up the rivers, not diverting them,” she concluded.
Further information on the winter Chinoook problem, this year’s rescue operations and source material on the agencies’ long-existing awareness of the problem can be found at: http://www.calsport.org. You can also contact Bill Jennings, Executive Director, California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, Phone, 209-464-5067; cell, 209-938-9053; email, deltakeep [at] me.com.