Central Valley Chinook Salmon: A historic legacy of abundance
California’s Central Valley was once home to robust Chinook salmon runs that surged up the waters of the Sacramento River and San Joaquin Rivers to spawning grounds located hundreds of miles away. The Bay-Delta welcomed four distinct runs of Chinook salmon each year. With over a million spawners returning annually, the Sacramento spring-run Chinook was the most productive salmon run in California. These monumental runs provided greatly for the nutritional needs of Native Americans and early explorers. The salmon and other fishery resources of the Central Valley helped enable the local Native American groups to reach some of the highest population densities to occur among non-agricultural societies of North America. In the 1800’s, Euro-American fur traders seeking wealth from the rich lands of the West traded Indians for dried salmon. This traditional staple of the Indian diet was quickly adopted by gold-prospectors and other explorers that required the rich, long-lasting food to survive harsh winters.
Word of the Bay-Delta’s plentiful salmon runs drew the attention of Atlantic salmon fishermen. North-East industry had quickly extinguished the region’s healthy salmon runs with polluted inland waters, dams, water diversion and habitat loss. The rivers and streams of California’s Central Valley were uninhibited by any significant human impacts and seemed an appropriate place to start a salmon fishery. By the 1850’s, 60 boats fished the Sacramento River between Sutter’s Fort and Suisan Bay. Fourteen years later, Hapgood, Hume and Company were canning salmon on a barge located across the street from K Street in Sacramento. In 1882, the Sacramento River hosted 19 canneries producing 200,000 cases of salmon annually.
From Dust to Dream: Drying the delta to feed the desert
Not only did the region appear rich with salmon, but by most engineer’s and legislator’s accounts the freshwater resources of the Bay-Delta were rich enough to supply vast acreages of farmland. The early California Legislature adopted English Law’s riparian water rights. These water rights endowed owners of land bordering streams or bodies of water with the right to utilize a reasonable amount of water. Some farms still maintain riparian water rights to this day. As the farming industry grew in the fertile soils of the Central Valley, the limited amount of farmland with direct access to surface water began to disappear and farmers were forced into dryer areas. More and more sprawl created a need for increasingly more water and most importantly, a way to funnel that precious water to farms popping up in lands historically regarded as deserts. To convey this water to those outside of the natural watershed, state and federal engineers devised a dizzying array of pumps, canals, pipes, dams, and reservoirs.
The Central Valley Project (CVP) did the job that nature wouldn’t. Its man-made rivers and streams abandoned the ecological bounty of the four Central Valley salmon runs, and focused its attention on growing tomatoes, grapes, lettuce, cotton, almonds, and alfalfa. The massive dams, Delta pumps, and reservoirs have provided great results for the farmers of the Central Valley who purchased water from this Bureau of Land Management (BLM) project for less than it cost to deliver. Where 20-30 million acre feet of water had once carried developing salmon into the rich waters of the Pacific Ocean, the new CVP operating regime can now direct inject more that half of this water into the arm of California agribusiness. Climatic limitations that once prevented the establishment of farms in arid regions have become an afterthought thanks to the CVP and a well funded legion of agribusiness lobbyists. From 1987-1988 the state’s “critically dry” level of drought meant little to CVP customers who received full allocation of water. The drought continued into 1990, when state water agencies finally cut-back on water allocations. Despite these restrictions, riparian water rights predating the CVP continued to allow a large contingent of water users to draw from surface water without limitation.
Abundance to Scarcity: Salmon on the brink
While the sprinklers continued to drench arid farmland with water, Central Valley salmon runs crashed. The construction of Friant Dam on the San Joaquin River in 1944 cuttoff all water to the river’s lower reaches and destroyed its salmon runs. In 1987, the salmon water supply in the Sacramento was reduced by 90%. The epic Central Valley Chinook runs that had once provided commercial and recreational fishermen with catches of over 1.5 million fish annually were reduced down to less than fifty thousand returning spawners in 1987. In 1989, the winter run Chinook was listed as Threatened by the federal government and endangered by the state of California.
By the early 90’s, drought and bountiful water allocations for agribusiness had sucked the 4,500,000 acre ft Shasta reservoir down to 2-3% of capacity. The State Water Project cut some agriculture customers off completely, while the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) reduced the water supply available to its CVP customers by 75%. Restrictions in surface water use proved a minor setback for some large farmers with the financial resources and technology necessary to drill into the finite water resources stored underground. Despite the exploitation of newly developed underground aquifers and additional water allocations, the unemployment rate in many farming communities hovered around 30%.
For the salmon fishermen, drilling for more salmon water was not an option. In 1992, the PFMC imposed tight quota limits on the commercial salmon fleet. The California harvest limit was set at a mere 150,000 fish or about a couple dozen salmon per boat. Such a small catch would not even pay for the cost of fuel. From 1980 to 1995, the number of fishermen employed by salmon shrunk from 50,000 to 10,000 and the number of boats dropped from 6,000 boats to 2,000. October 1992 ushered in the Central Valley Improvement Act, which called for changes in water management to restore, enhance, and protect fish and wildlife. That same fall 300 of the approximately 350 salmon trawlers on Fort Bragg were up for sale.
Less salmon fishermen on the water did not equate to more fish in the rivers and in 1994, the winter-run Chinook was listed as Endangered by the federal government. Salmon fishermen have worked with California Department of Fish and Game (CDFG) officials to help mitigate for the loss of thousands of miles of upstream spawning habitat for decades. The Salmon Stamp Program, begun in 1979, was a self-taxation program envisioned by commercial salmon fishermen that would provide supplementary funds in support of large scale hatchery enhancement, small-scale enhancement, habitat restoration, and public education. The multifaceted approach to Central Valley salmon restoration has seen definite signs of success; however, without the provision of adequate water flows to the Delta, the disparity between Central Valley crop production and Chinook salmon production continues to magnify.
Water for Fish is Water For People: Dispelling the myths
The current argument against the recent National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) Biological Opinion and its call for increased salmon water allocations of 5-7% to the Bay-Delta system is framed as “fish vs. people.” Making such a statement requires either a complete disregard for the fishermen that tirelessly fight to preserve this West Coast icon or a lack of information. Commercial salmon fishermen and coastal communities endured two straight years of season closures from 2008-2009 and without adequate rivers flows, may face many more. Salmon closures affect not only the fishermen in the boat, but also the massive economy their efforts help support. According to an economic study by Southwick Associates, the current shutdown of the salmon fishery is costing California alone $1.4 billion in lost economic opportunity and 23,000 jobs in both the commercial and recreational fishing sectors. The group estimates that full recovery of the Central Valley Chinook salmon runs could provide $5.7 billion in new economic activity for California and 94,000 new jobs.
Despite two consecutive years of closed salmon seasons, extensive funding provided to restoration and hatchery programs by the Salmon Stamp Program, and ruined coastal livelihoods, life in the Central Valley carries on in much the same way that it did before the season closures. Recent unemployment rates in the valley, though very high by city standards, have remained within a typical range for most Central Valley farming counties. In Fresno county, the May 2009 unemployment rate was 15.4%. This was less than 5% over the counties nine year average
unemployment rate of 10.5%. The unemployment rate for Mendota County was 30% nine years ago and 36% just six years ago. Contributing to the region’s legacy of high unemployment rates are the Central Valley’s increasing acreages of retired cropland, an ever increasing reliance on mechanized harvesting technology, and the housing crash. The labor pools for the construction industry and agriculture often overlap, making increased unemployment rates a result of more than reduced water availability.
While most sectors of California’s economy have faltered under the shadow of the current economic situation, agribusiness has continued to grow. During 2009, farm employment has grown faster than any other economic sector. This growth has brought economic changes to the Central Valley in the form of more jobs, not less. During the twelve month period that ended in April 2009, Fresno County’s farm payrolls increased by 3.2%. This increase contrasts sharply with the simultaneous payroll decrease of 3.4% for nonfarm payrolls in the region.
Misinformation has been well-circulated in regards to the water allocations that will be allotted towards saving a federally and state protected species and the water deliveries that will be received by Central Valley water districts this year. The NMFS Biological Opinion calls for 5-7% more water to be allocated to facilitate Chinook salmon and other protected fish species with access to precious upstream spawning habitat. For farmers reliant on Central Valley water deliveries, this precious water allocation means that many water distributors will still receive over 80% of their average water use during California’s third consecutive year of drought. Kern County Water Agency will receive 85% of average water use (2,898,000 acre feet), Westlands Water District will receive 86% of average water use (993,000 acre feet of water), and San Joaquin River Exchange Contractors will receive 100% of average water use (840,000 acre feet). One acre foot is equivalent to approximately 326,000 gallons, which is enough water to supply two to three typical households for a year.
California’s water history is one filled with droughts and dry weather. The state suffered between 1917 to 1934, when 11 of those 18 years were labeled as either critically dry or dry. Severe droughts were felt from 1976-1977, 1987-1992, and most recently, 2007 to present. As fishermen, farmers, and fish endure another year of water shortages and restrictions, it is evident that the water crisis cannot be ignored. Scientific studies have proven the need for increased delta flows to support state and federally listed endangered species and past experiences have show us that less water in the delta means fewer salmon, fewer jobs, and higher prices for consumer.