8/11/2015: The Bay Institute Warns Bureau of Reclamation to Stop Destroying Salmon Runs

Coalition intends to sue over senior water rights contracts that threaten endangered salmon runs; second year in a row of decisions to favor irrigators over salmon protection could lead to complete loss of 2015 year class

SAN FRANCISCO, CA – August 12, 2015 – Today, The Bay Institute and other groups[1],notified the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, National Marine Fisheries Service, and 28 senior water rights holders in the Sacramento Valley of their intent to sue to protect endangered salmonids that are facing extinction due, in part, to Shasta Reservoir operations.  Shasta Reservoir is owned and operated by the Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation).  The letter cites high rates of mortality among endangered winter-run Chinook salmon, this year and last year, that arose due to Shasta Reservoir operations and diversions by the water districts (collectively, Sacramento River Settlement Contractors) and the federal government’s failure to evaluate long-term water contracts held by the water districts for compliance with the Endangered Species Act as reasons for the planned litigation. The letter comes amid a continuing catastrophe for endangered winter-run Chinook salmon, which spawn only in the Sacramento River, and commercially valuable fall-run Chinook salmon below two federal dams.
For the second year in a row, actions by Reclamation to cater to irrigators are devastating California’s Chinook salmon runs. Last year, Reclamation’s mismanagement resulted in nearly complete destruction of the 2014 year-class of young salmon spawned in the Sacramento River before the fish even started their migration to the ocean. A replay seems almost certain this year unless Reclamation saves enough water in its reservoirs to provide cold water for salmon as they spawn, incubate, rear, and migrate downstream.
On August 1, The Bay Institute petitioned the State Water Resources Control Board (State Board) to withdraw its approval of the Sacramento River Temperature Management Plan, which describes planned operation of federal dams on the Sacramento River to manage water temperatures for Chinook salmon spawning habitat, and to rescind its latest order that weakened Clean Water Act standards for flow into and from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to San Francisco Bay. These approvals allow Reclamation to prioritize irrigation deliveries over the bare minimum protections needed to prevent further harm to struggling salmon populations by:
  • Blending warm water with cold to increase total water released from Shasta Reservoir beyond that which is needed to provide adequate temperatures for salmon eggs downstream – the additional water is diverted by senior water rights holders to grow rice and other crops in the Sacramento River valley.
  • Maintaining temperatures several degrees higher than needed to avoid killing a large percentage of salmon eggs in the spawning grounds (allowing daily average temperatures up to 58oF instead of the 55oF daily maximum that US EPA recommends for developing salmon eggs).
  • Shrinking the area where colder temperatures are maintained for the highly endangered winter-run Chinook salmon from over 50 miles of the Sacramento River to a 6-mile stretch, eliminating most of the fish’s spawning grounds.
  • Basing its operations on temperature models that consistently underestimate temperature impacts (by 4oF over a 3 month period in 2014, according to Reclamation’s own analysis).
Reclamation has made a practice of promising to meet its legal requirements to protect our fisheries and then delivering so much water to irrigators that the agency appears unable to satisfy its environmental obligations as the summer drags on. Indeed, Reclamation recently asked the State Board for permission to violate standards for dissolved oxygen on the Stanislaus River.  In July, The Bay Institute protested this petition, pointing out that returning Chinook salmon adults would be harmed as they tried to ascend the San Joaquin and Stanislaus Rivers if the (already insufficient) dissolved oxygen standards there were not maintained. Reclamation’s desire to reduce flows on the Stanislaus arose because the agency had released too much water from New Melones Reservoir for delivery to senior water rights holders in that watershed, instead of maintaining adequate water reserves to meet water quality needs. The State Board issued the waiver of existing dissolved oxygen standards last week.
Similarly, Reclamation has delivered too much water to senior water rights holders in the Sacramento Valley, placing that river’s salmon populations at grave risk, for the second year in a row. In February, when Reclamation asked the State Board to relax critically important Bay-Delta water quality standards, The Bay Institute warned that there was little likelihood or assurance that the federal agency would use water stored in its reservoirs (instead of being released to meet the standards) to actually protect salmon. In May, we alerted the Board to the fact that Reclamation was indeed releasing too much water from Shasta Dam for delivery to senior water rights holders along the Sacramento River and that doing so would undermine efforts to maintain adequate temperatures for spawning salmon throughout the summer and fall.
Now, the only chance to protect this year’s Sacramento River winter and fall-run Chinook salmon, and improve future management, is to cut reservoir releases to the minimum needed to maintain temperature control and water quality requirements downstream and stop relying on Reclamation’s flawed temperature model to determine how much water to release.
About The Bay Institute:
The Bay Institute is a leader in protecting and restoring San Francisco Bay and the vast watershed that drains into it. For over 30 years, The Bay Institute has been developing and leading model scientific research, education, and advocacy programs to preserve the fish, wildlife, and habitats of the Bay, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the rivers and streams that feed into the estuary, and the nearshore coastal and ocean waters at its downstream end. For more information about our work, visit www.thebayinstitute.org. 
Media Contact: 
Dr. Jon Rosenfield  | Conservation Biologist | rosenfield@bay.org | 510.684.4757
Gary Bobker | Program Director | bobker@bay.org | 415.272.6616
[1] Natural Resources Defense Council, Earthjustice, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, the Winnemem Wintu tribe, and San Francisco Baykeeper.