Salmon Are Worth the Effort

Salmon Are Worth The Editorial Jun 4, 2015

Last month we learned that 22 years of planning and projects meant to restore salmon and steelhead populations decimated by the Central Valley Project are flopping like fish out of water.

Not only is that a big blow to the fish themselves — some of which are teetering on the verge of extinction — it’s just about a $1 billion hit on taxpayers’ money.

But this week it looks as if the folks at the state Water Resources Control Board and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation are trying to right at least one component of the failed plan — something they’ve handled inconsistently over the years. This year early June releases of water from Keswick Dam into the Sacramento River are being cut back as much as 22 percent, from 9,000 cubic-feet per second to no more than 7,500 cfs.

It’s an effort to avoid repeating last year’s debacle when too much warm water was released late in the season, wiping out thousands of salmon eggs and recent hatches — almost the entire fall salmon run. Those eggs and small fry need cold water to survive — and one might expect, after 22 years of studies and planning, all those state and federal bureaucrats might have known that.

There are many agencies involved in the multifaceted efforts — critics say too many. The results of their combined efforts are dismal.

Except for good progress made on Battle and Clear creeks, the Central Valley Project Improvement Act of 1992 failed to accomplish even 50 percent of its goals, as reporter Damon Arthur recently documented. By 2012, for example, plans called for spring-run Chinook salmon spawning numbers to hit 68,000. There were only 30,522. The federal and state agencies hit only 30.6 percent of their goal for fall-run Chinook.

The whole idea of the Act was to restore the habitat — and the fish — devastated by the 400-mile Central Valley Project with its 20 dams and reservoirs and 11 power plants.

That entailed installing fish screens, planting along stream banks, replacing gravel (good for spawning) and improving channel conditions, but after all this time not even a quarter of those projects have been completed.

Those responsible have offered excuses, not explanations.

It’s just a bigger system,” said Bob Clarke, fisheries program supervisor for the federal fish and wildlife service’s Pacific Southwest Region. It’s hard to believe nobody was aware of the size and complexity of the system when the law was approved.

David Mooney, administrator of the project improvement act, said the projects have cost more than expected at a time when money is short. But maybe what the project needs are fewer administrators and more field work.

It’s true that the situation in the last few years is greatly complicated by the ongoing drought. That means those thirsty farmers down in the lower reaches of the valley are clamoring for all they can get — and at times that doesn’t do the salmon any favors. Higher lake levels with larger pools of cooler water are good for the salmon, but not necessarily for crops.

Salmon are crucial to the state’s $1.5 billion commercial and recreational fishing industry, and so play a vital role in the North State’s economy.

We’re hoping the steps bureaucrats are taking now will be enough to save this year’s salmon run. Water temperature is already higher than last year by about a degree. Those salmon need all the cold water they can get.