A Death Sentence for California Salmon

Jan 12, 2022

Last year, the Sacramento River’s winter-run Chinook salmon were almost entirely killed off. How? California’s State Water Resources Control Board allowed water releases into the river that were too hot.

The salmon need the cold water stored behind Shasta Dam to survive. But the Newsom administration allowed the federal Bureau of Reclamation to siphon off large volumes of that valuable icy water to flood rice and almond fields instead, resulting in dam releases that made it too hot for the salmon to live.

Newsom’s Water Board also allowed the Bureau of Reclamation and the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) to violate water quality standards in the Delta. These violations hurt a variety of species, including native smelt, steelhead, and juvenile salmon, as they tried to migrate to the ocean from rivers across the Central Valley.

Now it looks like Newsom wants to finish the job.

Survival of winter-run Chinook last year was the lowest on record. It’s doubtful this unique species can withstand another season under these dire conditions.

Yet once again, state and federal water agencies are making plans to deliver massive volumes of water to powerful agricultural interests. And the State Water Board is preparing to rubber-stamp the agencies’ various requests for "urgency petitions'' and other exceptions to water quality rules.

These actions will amount to a death sentence for winter-run Chinook salmon and other endangered species in the Sacramento River and the Delta.

The devastating effects of diverting too much cold water from our rivers and the Bay are clear: toxic water quality, declining fish populations, and potential extinctions. That’s why Baykeeper and our allies are fighting back.

We’re urging Governor Newsom’s Water Board to deny the urgency petitions and enforce water quality standards throughout the Bay-Delta watershed. We’ve also taken legal action to strengthen environmental protections in its Bay-Delta Plan. These updates would protect fish and wildlife, and improve water quality in the Bay and its tributaries—allowing wildlife to survive and people to enjoy their local rivers.

And for the long term, we’re advocating that California regulators rethink the realities of our water supply.

The current system of water allocation—designed over 150 years ago—encourages unsustainable water use by an increasingly corporate California agriculture industry to irrigate thirsty monocultures. Conditions will only get worse for farms that practice sustainable agriculture to grow our food and the rest of us who need to share California’s limited water supply as the drying effects of climate change intensify. 

"The governor and his administration keep hiding behind so-called 'emergency regulations' to circumvent their own science and avoid making the stable, long term plans they know we need," said Baykeeper staff attorney Ben Eichenberg, who recently testified at a State Water Board hearing to oppose approval of the urgency petitions. "By repeatedly failing to enforce its own water quality rules, the Board fails its obligations to California residents and the public trust. As a result, the Bay-Delta’s native fish are now closer to extinction than they have ever been."

Struggling Salmon

Pictured, above: Sickened salmon struggling outside Keswick Dam (pictured, top), near the Sacramento River. Imagery by SF Baykeeper. 

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