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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.



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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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