.California’s Salmon Barely Survived the 20th Century, (But Will They Vanish Before the Next One?)

Though fishing industry observers fear for the worst, some fisheries advocates can see a path forward.

Mike Hudson began commercially fishing about 25 years ago. Fishing was productive enough that he paid off his boat and made some decent money — especially from his primary target, Chinook salmon, the most valuable seafood from local waters.

“I was able to turn this into a pretty hopping little business,” said Hudson, who has sold his fish for years at the Berkeley and El Cerrito farmers markets.

But a little more than ten years ago, the Chinook population collapsed — the outcome of unproductive ocean conditions combined with excessive water diversions from the Central Valley rivers the salmon spawn in.

The salmon fishing season in California and Oregon was closed for 2008 and 2009 while fishermen sought federal disaster relief. Eventually, salmon numbers rebounded, and fishing resumed. “But then the numbers started dropping again,” Hudson said.

By 2016, 2017, and 2018, fishing was so poor that it barely paid Hudson’s gas bill. 2019’s season was “decent,” he said, but he fears another drop in salmon numbers will force him to sell his boat.

Hudson’s perspective only captures the tail-end of a 150-year decline in salmon abundance in a state where, prior to the Gold Rush, fat, gleaming Chinook in uncountable swarms were perhaps California’s greatest asset. They teemed in coastal ocean waters while mature adults by the millions swam through the Golden Gate and Carquinez Straits each year and into the Central Valley’s rivers, which ran clean and unobstructed by dams and levees. Here, they laid and fertilized their eggs, then died as Pacific salmon naturally do after spawning. Their carcasses nourished wildlife, forests, and their own offspring. The huge volumes of fish impressed early explorers, who often described rivers brimming with three- and four-foot salmon. Meanwhile, for indigenous Californians, salmon was a plentiful year-round staple.

European Americans and their unsustainable economies changed all this. Gold Rush mining activity filled spawning streams with silt, smothering egg-laying gravel beds. Logging caused similar erosion. Levees dried out riverside habitat, which was converted into farmland and towns. In the 20th century, when California began damming its biggest rivers, salmon lost access to their historic mountain spawning grounds.

Then, in the 1950s and 60s, water agencies installed powerful pumps at the south edge of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. These pumping facilities suck large volumes of water from the estuary and send it south into the San Joaquin Valley, where vast orchards have grown in recent decades. Those diversions have contributed to the collapse of the Delta’s ecosystem and its native fish.

Since 2015, the state’s commercial fishermen have reported nearly record-low catches. Fish hatcheries produce most of the salmon caught in California today, and with much of their inland habitat badly degraded, truly wild salmon are scarce.

But a small circle of biologists and fishermen believe they can revive California’s legendary Chinook to something resembling its historic glory.

“The potential for salmon recovery is massive,” said biologist Rene Henery, who works with the organization Trout Unlimited. “We still have diverse habitat, we still have a ton of water, we still have high-elevation places where we continue to get snowpack, and we still have large floodplains.”

Floodplains covered with water provide important foraging grounds for young salmon as they migrate downriver to the ocean. However, thousands of miles of levees now separate rivers from adjacent land, turning once productive waterways into narrow, fast-moving, sterilized channels — a terrible environment for young salmon.

Henery believes that reconnecting floodplains to their rivers could help reboot salmon runs in the Sacramento watershed, in spite of upstream dams like Shasta, Oroville, and Folsom.

Jacob Katz, a biologist with California Trout, sees the same potential. Katz has been working for more than half a decade on a plan to carve a relatively simple notch into a levee along the lower Sacramento River that will allow river water to flow across 8,000 acres of low-lying land. Rice farmers own much of this property, but the idea is to flood it only during the fallow winter months. Spring and summer farming would not be impacted, and river productivity — magnified by increased surface area, solar exposure, and blooms of nutritious floodplain invertebrates — would surge.

Combined with other “landscape-scale” projects, Katz believes this work could reenergize the Central Valley’s salmon rivers.

“If we can create a system that gives fish what they need not just in the exceptionally wet years but in every year, I think we could have a base returning number of several hundred thousand salmon on an annual basis,” Katz said.

But reviving rivers and their salmon runs will require water, and it’s likely these efforts will meet resistance from farmers, who rely on heavy and consistent diversions from the Central Valley’s waterways. The feud over water is often framed as one of fish-versus-farmers. While that’s not exactly inaccurate, Henery, Katz and many others view that characterization as a roadblock that it’s time to move beyond. They envision a system in which farmers and wildlife share land and water.

“Bringing these rivers back to a state of abundance — this is compatible with farming and grazing,” Henery said.

For now, salmon are losing as almond and pistachio orchards expand, and government officials waffle on protecting rivers, water quality, and endangered species — often in response to lobbying by powerful farming districts.

At the Golden State Salmon Association, a fishery advocacy group, president John McManus believes that restoring floodplains could produce significant results, helping the fishing industry stay afloat.

Still, he worries things will get worse for salmon before they get better.

“It could take another extinction or two before the state of California gets serious about protecting its resources,” he said.

Historic Highs to Current Lows

The Central Valley river system marks the southern limit of the Chinook’s range. In most ecological scenarios, a species will thrive in the middle reaches of its range and exist more tenuously on the outskirts and edges. But by chance, California — though similar in climate and latitude to Spain and Turkey — is more than suitable for a species that also thrives in the soggy Northwest and icy sub-Arctic.

That’s because of the remarkable mountains that line the eastern and northern boundaries of the Central Valley. Snow lingers most of the year on the highest slopes of the Sierra Nevada, as well as Mount Lassen and Mount Shasta — the southernmost of the Cascades. Historically, this snow, when it melted, created cold-water river conditions that were just about perfect for salmon.

The best estimates suggest that one to two million adult Chinook entered the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers every year to spawn — some of the largest runs in the species’ entire range. The rivers of the North Coast probably supported that many more. Coho salmon and steelhead were plentiful, too.

In a 1998 paper, U.C. Davis biologist Ronald Yoshiyama reported that native Californians may once have caught, using relatively simple gear, more than 8.5 million pounds of Chinook each year in the Central Valley’s rivers alone — apparently without seriously denting the stocks. By comparison, the typical statewide annual catch by fishermen today, of both commercial and sport, using high-powered boats and state-of-the-art fishing gear, usually run between half a million and 2 million pounds.

In 1846, Captain John Fremont reported seeing salmon “generally between three and four feet in length” in the Sacramento River. In that same year, Edwin Bryant, an early Californian, reported seeing salmon in the Sacramento that were five feet long — what might have been an exaggeration but could just as well have been 100-pound Chinook.

Almost as soon as the Gold Rush began, salmon populations began their downhill slide. Just about every industry and economy introduced to Northern California played its part in eliminating the river habitat required by the fish, both for adult spawning and for the early months of their offspring’s lives. Hydraulic gold mining unleashed mountainsides’ worth of sediment that buried spawning gravels and ruined many streams almost beyond recovery. The dam-building boom of the 1930s and 1940s had the longest lasting impacts. Knowing in advance what those barriers would do to salmon, the agencies that built them also constructed several large fish hatcheries.

But this intended mitigation program has worked only marginally well. Even though they release tens of millions of baby Chinook into the Central Valley’s rivers each year, the state’s hatcheries cannot match the damage that has been done to the fish’s natural habitat. Much research even suggests that hatcheries make things worse by overwhelming naturally born salmon with genetically inferior fish, denied the gene-polishing pressures of natural selection. When the different gene pools mix, the whole population suffers. 

Commercial fishery data reflects the 20th century decline of salmon. From 1966 to 1980, fishermen caught an average of 555,000 Chinook per year (and sometimes several hundred thousand Coho, which are now endangered and relatively rare due to North Coast stream destruction).

By the 1990s, the fishery was a shadow of its historic glory, and in the 2000s it hit new lows. Commercial fishermen caught 54,000 fish per year on average from 2007 to 2018. This period included two years — 2008 and 2009 — when the season was entirely shut down due to record-low fish returns. That collapse came three years after Delta water exports hit record-high levels — more than 6-million acre-feet each year, four times the diversions of the 1960s.

Fish Versus Farms?

While biologists generally agree that poor marine conditions — subdued upwelling and less phytoplankton production — contributed to the late-2000s salmon crash, they also generally agree that excessive water diversions played their part. Some water is removed from the system before it starts its journey into the Central Valley. San Franciscans use water that once flowed through the Delta but is now impounded in Hetch Hetchy reservoir and piped to the Bay Area. East Bay MUD similarly takes its water from the Sierra foothills. Both reduce total Delta flows. 

Within the Delta itself, the pumps are a major stressor on the system. They move huge amounts of water, and in doing so suck small fish to their deaths or leave them lost in backwaters and sloughs where they’re eaten by bass and catfish.

The Los Angeles area receives about a quarter of the water pumped from the Delta, while a tiny slice of the pie goes to the South Bay. Most of the rest is consumed by San Joaquin Valley farmland. Here, lucrative orchards and vineyards have proliferated since the 1990s as farmers shift away from annual crops like cotton, cantaloupes, and alfalfa. 

Nuts and grapes generate big money for farmers. However, unlike annual crops, trees and grapevines cannot be fallowed during dry times without great cost to the farmer. Instead, they require irrigation almost constantly, even during periods when water for irrigation is scarce. For this reason, this agricultural shift has placed heavy strain on water supplies.

Even the distant Trinity River, a major Klamath tributary, feels the pressure of these growing industries. The Trinity is tapped by an 11-mile-long tunnel through a mountain that empties into the Sacramento drainage. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation drilled this tube in the 1960s specifically to augment the federal agency’s Central Valley Project, which delivers water via the Delta pumps to San Joaquin Valley farms.

Farmers in the Westlands Water District — a nucleus of almond and pistachio industry growth — reap the benefits of these federal water systems. To meet the almost-nonstop water demand of its most valuable crops, Westlands has bullied hard against pumping restrictions. Right now, Westlands farmers are poised to secure a new water contract that many suspect was won with the help of U.S. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt, who used to work as a lawyer and lobbyist for Westlands. The deal could mean more than a million acre-feet of water each year — enough to supply one to two million average California households — for a region that was established on the premise that it would be irrigated with surplus water. Westlands also scored about 100,000 acre-feet more water each year after state and federal officials quietly signed a new water pumping plan on December 12, 2018.

Statewide in 2017, the farming industry logged $50 billion in cash sales and $8.9 billion in profits. Almost half of the state’s crops by value — and two-thirds of the almonds — are exported abroad, a reality that belies the often-heard story that environmental regulations threaten Californians’ food supply. “If they were growing food that mostly stayed on our grocery store shelves, I wouldn’t bitch, but so much of their production is going for export, and it’s at the expense of our salmon,” Hudson said.

The conditions beleaguering the Delta and the rivers feeding it are complicated, but it often becomes simplified as a conflict of fish against farms. After all, river water that carries a cluster of salmon smolts into San Pablo Bay does not directly profit a farmer, while water that is ushered over the rootzone of a pistachio tree could translate into less fish in the ocean. 

Many farmers south of the Delta claim that laws meant to protect fish are crippling their industry.

“Farmers in California have it tough these days,” wrote Westlands farmer Ted Sheely, who owns and irrigates thousands of acres of land, in a 2016 column for the Global Farmer Network. “Despite recent rainfall from El Niño,” he went on, “we continue to suffer through one of the worst droughts in history. We still don’t have enough water to feed our crops.”

Sheely grows pistachios, which saw a record crop in 2016 — nearly 900 million pounds.

In a Nov. 17, 2019, column, Sheely — who did not reply to an email sent to his company, Horizon Nut — called out water managers for “pumping vast volumes of this precious resource [water] into the Pacific Ocean for the sake of the delta smelt.” He’s referring to the small fish that was once the most abundant species in the Delta but is now nearly extinct. Scientists consider its demise a clear indicator of ecological turmoil in the Delta.

But water is not pumped into the ocean, nor are rivers artificial impositions on the landscape or economy. Rivers flow naturally to the ocean, and this alone has simple benefits, including holding saltwater at bay and protecting the very pumps that south-of-Delta farmers rely on.

Water flowing into San Pablo and San Francisco bays also flushes contaminants out of the system and supports shoreline wetlands. Freshwater inflow also creates estuary conditions favorable to herring, halibut, and Dungeness crab, all of which use San Francisco Bay as a critical spawning ground.

For baby salmon, the benefits of lively rivers are obvious.

“That water gets the little fish out to the ocean,” said Don Portz, manager of the San Joaquin River Restoration Program, which is currently attempting to repopulate the Central Valley’s most impaired river with threatened spring-run Chinook. The effort, which is just getting started, was born from a successful lawsuit by NRDC against upstream farming districts that completely diverted the river in the 1950s.

Not everyone is thrilled by the idea of flowing rivers. In a November opinion piece in the Daily Breeze, author Steven Greenhut complained about environmental efforts to protect natural waterways.

“When it comes to water supplies,” he wrote, “environmentalists always demand ‘more’ water for habitat preservation — they’re never satisfied with any compromise proposal.” He lashed at those who demand “more water for unrestricted river flows.”

River flows in California are anything but unrestricted, of course, and the plight of the San Joaquin is just one clear example.

The Myth of Coequal Goals

Big Ag’s claims that environmental water allocations hamstring their industry may appear disingenuous, but even state policy deems reliable water delivery and preserving natural resources to be “coequal goals.” The notion is false, often just paying lip service to California’s environmental values while generally failing to honor them. While government agencies have built and maintained ever-more-complex infrastructure for delivering water to farmers and cities, wetlands and watersheds have deteriorated or vanished.

In fact, numerous state and federal laws that call explicitly for protecting fish and their rivers have been essentially ignored for decades. For example, Fish and Game Code 5937, law since 1915, prohibits dams from harming fish. Another seemingly abandoned code in the same pages, 5931, requires that every dam in the state be furnished with fish ladders, or some means for fish to move past the barriers, though few dams are. Yet another failed law, the Central Valley Project Improvement Act, mandates that water managers do what it takes to bring salmon and steelhead numbers back to twice their historic populations. The CVPIA is now 27 years old.

A barrage of more obscure laws meant to protect Central Valley waterways are waived routinely for the benefit of powerful farming interests. This pattern intensified during the state’s recent five-year drought, when “virtually every single rule to protect the environment got waived, and they diverted way more water than they were allowed to,” said NRDC water attorney Doug Obegi.

He said exemptions to state water quality standards in 2014 and 2015 allowed the state and federal Delta pumps to increase their water supplies by more than 1.3 million acre-feet.

Farther upstream, the Bureau of Reclamation is required to maintain flows of cold water out of Lake Shasta and into the lower Sacramento River to support spawning salmon. River temperatures much higher than 56 degrees will kill or damage fertilized Chinook eggs. 

“But almost every year, the Bureau of Reclamation asks the Water Board to modify that rule, and the Water Board rubber stamps that request,” said Jon Rosenfield, a scientist with the watchdog group San Francisco Baykeeper.

In 2014, this caused a total spawning failure of the endangered winter-run Chinook. After receiving heavy criticism from river and fish advocates, the bureau did almost the exact same thing the following year, causing another full spawning failure of the winter-run.

Beyond reduced flows, impaired Central Valley rivers suffer from many stressors. Water pollution, invasive clams and predatory fish, and insufficient floodplain habitat have contributed to declines in fish numbers.

“But all these other things are affected by flow rates,” Rosenfield said. He added that the “best effect” from adding water to stressed rivers comes by mimicking natural cycles of flow variation.

In the scientific literature, water flows are often termed “the master variable” because of their influence over other components of a system. As Katz at California Trout quipped, “You can make habitat improvements on floodplains, but fish need water — their habitat has to be wet.”

Before the Delta smelt went “functionally extinct” during the drought, as U.C. Davis biologist and fisheries expert Peter Moyle termed their collapse, the endangered fish’s numbers spiked months after every high-rainfall year — a statistically clear demonstration of the immediate ecological benefits of boosted river flows. 

As for salmon, Moyle says increasing river flows will produce results. Sufficient water flowing through river basins helps flush millions of finger-sized salmon out of the perilous Delta and into the bay and ocean — though not immediately.

“It will take a few years to see a difference, and the trouble is nobody wants to wait around on the vague hope that salmon will eventually come back,” he said. “If they don’t see more fish in a year, they’ll want their water back.” 

Farmer Cannon Michael, who grows a variety of crops — mainly tomatoes — in the San Joaquin Valley, calls himself “a proponent” of salmon restoration but feels that water can be used inefficiently in conservation. “There’s nothing wrong with allocating water to the environment, but we want make sure that water added to the river produces a positive response,” he said.

The state’s almond growers saw only a slight dip in production during the state’s long drought. In the years since, almond farmers have reported successive record crops three years in a row. The latest numbers show 2.8 billion pounds harvested in 2019 and more than 1.3 million acres of trees.

The pistachio industry is not far behind. Since its record-smashing, 900-million-pound 2016 crop, analysts have predicted that pistachio growers will be harvesting about 1.5 billion pounds within a decade.

Nut farmers continue to plant millions of trees each year, establishing more and more pressure on rivers.

“It’s trippy to me when they’re talking about balancing coequal goals,” Henery said. “So much of that growth in agriculture has been borne by the fishing industry, and the collapse of salmon.”

A Success Story

Last fall, several hundred spring-run Chinook laid and fertilized their eggs in the middle reaches of the San Joaquin River and died in the current, as Pacific salmon do after they spawn. Biologists had been working for several years toward restoring a portion of the river’s flows and establishing spawning habitat just below Friant Dam. 

“It was the first time in 65 years that we had a full life cycle — salmon that were born here and then returned to spawn,” said Portz, program manager for the project. 

Led by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, this landmark project is emerging as a surprise success story, for many people once considered this river, impacted as it is by the Friant Dam, to be a lost cause. The dam stopped migrating adult Chinook many miles short of their cool mountain spawning grounds. Diversions from the newly filled Millerton Lake reservoir allowed fields and orchards to proliferate, and the San Joaquin’s once-enormous salmon runs vanished in just several years.

For decades, the San Joaquin’s riverbed between Friant Dam and the confluence with the Merced River remained mostly dry in all but the wettest years. The river was dead. 

Then, in 2006, NRDC won an 18-year-long lawsuit against a collection of irrigation districts for violating Fish and Game Code 5937. A settlement ordered the Friant Water Users Authority to give up 18 percent of its water supply and allow it out the dam, into the river below. 

Releasing all that water through the dam is not yet feasible because of flooding impacts this would have on downstream farmers who are growing crops on the floodplain. In fact, the program budgets more than $70 million for compensating impacted landowners and mitigating floodplain seepage where possible with ditches and rock drains.

Michael, the tomato farmer, is one of them. “Groundwater levels will rise, and we’ll experience a lot of seepage,” he said. Michael also said he believes there should be water, and salmon, in the San Joaquin River. “I don’t want a California that’s devoid of salmonids or ducks,” he said.

For now, just one third of the program’s water is exiting the dam. It’s just a trickle, but it produced a surge of fish. 

“It goes to show that if you give them water, salmon will come back,” said Obegi, at NRDC.

The project aims to restore floodplain habitat and will also need to deal with four points along the river where small dams and other barriers will impede the passage of fish upstream and down. 

Currently, the program has been seeding the river with baby hatchery-born spring-run Chinook, released at the base of Friant Dam. Over time, the program will increase dam outflow and that, if all goes well, the San Joaquin could see a sizeable salmon run again. The program sets a target of 30,000 returning adult salmon annually by 2040. That would be roughly five or 10 percent of the river’s historical estimated returns.

Portz said the goal is to have a naturally sustaining salmon run, and his program has now taken a big step forward.

“We actually have a river again,” he said.

A Grim Future

The trajectory of California’s salmon toward extinction has been so steady that it almost seems that something in the flow of time itself is working against them (to borrow a line of thinking from Martin Luther King, Jr.). The fish’s numbers wax and wane by the year, but by the decade, runs are thinning out, and fishery landings are declining. This has been the case along the entire West Coast, and some scientists have predicted that south of Canada, wild salmon are doomed by human economic growth.

Hudson worries that it’s only a matter of time before fishable populations of salmon vanish and the commercial industry shuts down for good.

“We’re at the losing end of this, and I don’t think we’re going to come out of this alive,” he said.

One more drought, he thinks, could kill the fishery, for with limited water to go around, powerful farmers will win.

“We know the almond growers and the wine growers and the alfalfa growers will keep taking their water,” he said.

But optimists believe the fish are worth fighting for and that the fight can be won. Although Moyle predicted in a 2017 report that most of California’s salmon and trout would vanish by 2100, he feels some state officials are pushing fish-friendly policy.

“The State Water Board has made it clear they really want to do the right thing and increase flows through the rivers,” he said, referring to a 2018 board proposal to require leaving the San Joaquin River system with 40 percent of its average unimpaired flows and the Sacramento with 55 percent. 

In a report released at the time, the Board stated that “Delta outflows are too low to protect the ecosystem, and without additional regulatory protections, existing flows will likely be reduced in the future.”

That call for tightened river protections angered almond farmers, whose trade organization released a detailed report on the potential economic impacts to the industry. Even so, some environmentalists said such action would fall short of baseline environmental needs.

McManus fears society might be willing to let salmon go.

“We may get to a point where we have to look ourselves in the mirror and decide whether we’re going to do what it takes going forward to keep our native wildlife in the picture, or whether or not we as a society are willing to let these fish go extinct.”


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