The state and federal agencies tasked with protecting our fish, wildlife, and natural resources are once again scrambling to avoid wiping out this year’s cohort of chinook salmon that spawn below Shasta Dam. If this sounds familiar, it is because this scenario is a repeat of attempts to “manage” Shasta operations in 2014 and 2015, which resulted in over 75% of the eggs and fry of endangered winter run chinook salmon being destroyed in both of those years, solely from the lack of sufficient cold water being released from Shasta Dam (overall in-river mortality rates for winter run born in 2014 and 2015 exceeded 95%). Fall run chinook salmon, that form the backbone of the west coast salmon fishery, fared even worse in their Sacramento River habitat in 2014. We’ve heard lots of proclamations this year about how California learned its lessons from the severe drought of 2012-2016 and won’t repeat the mistakes of that era, which were horrific for fish and wildlife. But here we are again, with some of California’s last struggling salmon runs still not fully recovered from the last drought and once again facing extinction-level mortality events in the wild.
The question is: why are we here again? The answer is not complicated:
- The State Water Resources Control Board, appointed by Governor Newsom, has not updated woefully out-of-date water quality standards on the Sacramento River and in the Delta, standards which would include measures to avoid the wholesale slaughter of chinook salmon that periodically occurs below Shasta Dam; and
- The federal Interior Department and National Marine Fisheries Service have not yet withdrawn the Trump-era biological opinions in the Bay-Delta, that are so bereft of any scientific justification that they actually permit 100% of the endangered winter run salmon that spawn below Shasta Dam to be killed by overly warm water temperatures in a year like this one.
California’s State Water Resources Control Board has been working to update the 1995 water quality standards that currently regulate San Francisco Bay-Delta operations since 2009. This “triennial review” is now decades overdue, meaning that the water quality standards that we rely on to protect the state’s most important estuary, source of drinking water, and irrigation water supply fail to reflect the most basic conditions on the ground or current scientific information. Since the 1995 plan went into effect, the Bay-Delta has experienced ecosystem collapse on a scale that has shocked scientists, with several of its native fish—the canaries in the coal mine for ecosystem health—experiencing population declines in excess of 95%. We know how to address these declines. With regard to maintaining cold water habitat for…