'The vascular system of our landscape'

TU is working to restore salmon and steelhead in California’s two largest river systems


California has over 189,000 miles of rivers. Salmon and steelhead swam in most of those miles until the 20th century, when dams and growing water diversions severely diminished fish passage and habitat.

It’s a long, woeful story. Since the 1950’s, salmon and steelhead runs, which once sustained entire cultures in this state, have crashed in virtually every river and stream. But recent developments offer reason for optimism in the effort to bring back these native California fish.

In particular, the State Water Resources Control Board (SWB) has proposed actions that would, if fully implemented, demonstrate that California is getting serious about ensuring that salmon and steelhead haveenough of the critical ingredient they need to persist: more water.

(R) TU member Kyle Moua releases an adult salmon into the San Joaquin River below Friant Dam in 2015. Restoring Chinook salmon to the San Joaquin is a primary goal of the river restoration program.

California’s two largest rivers, the Sacramento and San Joaquin, formerly hosted dense runs of salmon and steelhead. The Sacramento, historically, has been the second most productive river system for salmon and steelhead on the West Coast, behind only the Columbia. As many as 300,000 Chinook salmon may have run in the San Joaquin prior to construction of Friant Dam in 1942.

In September the water board released a draft proposal to update water quality requirements and flow standards in major tributaries to the San Joaquin (the Merced, Tuolumne, and Stanislaus rivers). These standards were last updated over twenty years ago. Currently, 80-90% of the flow in these rivers is diverted in some years, and in some months more than 90% is diverted. You can read TU’s statement on the water board’s proposed Substitute Environmental Document (SED) here.

(L) Resident rainbow, lower Sacramento River. Photo courtesy Dave Neal/Reel Adventures Guide Service.

On October 19, the SWB issued a new scientific analysis that proposes to require more Sacramento River water be dedicated to help fish and, more broadly, the ecological function of the Bay Delta (the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers and the largest estuary on the West Coast).

Moreover, the federal Bureau of Reclamation announced recently that it expects to reach a major milestone in the San Joaquin River Restoration Program by the end of this month. The milestone is year-round flow in the river in the sixty-mile segment between Friant Dam and the Merced River, which is typically dry.

TU has been involved with the San Joaquin River restoration effort since its inception. In particular, TU’s California Science Director, Rene Henery, has played a lead role in bringing science to bear on implementing the program’s ambitious goals. Henery said rivers like the Sacramento and San Joaquin are vital for the health of both the state’s ecology and human communities, calling them “the vascular system of our landscape and of our societies.”

Read more from Henery about the importance of managing our rivers better for fish and people in this recent article from the Associated Press.

While lack of water is not the only variable driving salmon and steelhead declines in California, says Henery, "it is the master variable." Other factors that influence fish populations (predation, habitat loss and degradation, water quality) will all be improved with augmented flows.

(R) Hooked up on the Tuolumne River, one of the main tributaries to the lower San Joaquin River. 

Decades of scientific research and monitoring demonstrate that the outdated water quality standards for the San Joaquin River and its tributaries are inadequate. Similarly, current science indicates that as much as 75% of “unimpaired” (natural) flow in the Sacramento River may be required to restore salmon and steelhead.

Increased flows in the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers are necessary to restore and support “living” rivers and the thousands of jobs and communities that depend on them. TU believes the SWB should adopt scientifically sound instream flow standards that will increase flows to restore these rivers and water quality. The water board should also require restoration of floodplains and other habitats and should reduce water supply impacts by implementing projects that improve water use efficiency, water recycling, and groundwater recharge. 


Bay Delta overview image courtesy of the Bay Area Council.


said on Wednesday, November 2nd, 2016

Great article, Sam.


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