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What Happened to California's Salmon Season This Year?

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Close up of small fish jumping a few inches out of the water. Some algae is seen below it.
A young fingerling Chinook salmon leaps out of the water after being released into a holding pen at Pillar Point Harbor on May 16, 2018, in Half Moon Bay. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

On the steps of the state Capitol in Sacramento last week, beneath the grand white dome, Sarah Bates called out the absence of salmon from July 4th holiday celebrations.

There had been parades and fireworks, said Bates, who commercially fishes out of San Francisco. “But when I sat down for dinner with my family, what was missing? Where’s the fish?” she shouted with disdain, presumably within earshot of some lawmakers. “Where’s the salmon? Where’s my fresh, local salmon? Today’s my baby’s first birthday. She’s not eating salmon tonight.”

The next generation was also on the mind of Jason Jackson-Reed, a member of the Hoopa Valley Tribe. He addressed the crowd as he cradled his 1-month-old son in a carrier.

“Our [tribe’s] social well-being, physical, our cultural, our spiritual well-being, it all runs parallel to the salmon,” he said. “If the salmon aren’t doing good, we’re not doing good.”

He traced the construction of dams and demise of once abundant fishing stocks to hard times and poor health for the Hoopa people, including diabetes, high blood pressure and addiction.

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“And it’s not going to change until the Natives start writing the narrative and we start re-Indigenizing [water] management,” Jackson-Reed said.

A group of protesters under colorful umbrellas rally in front of the white, stately Capitol building.
Gary Mulcahy, government liaison for the Winnemem Wintu Tribe, addresses the crowd at the Day of Action for California Water Justice and Salmon rally on July 5, 2023, at the state Capitol. (Danielle Venton/KQED)

This spring, fisheries managers closed the commercial and recreational salmon season off the coast of California, owing to cratering fish populations, for the first time since 2009. Every one of the few fish left from the generation of Chinook salmon currently swimming in the ocean are needed to return to their natal streams and spawn, managers decided.

On the Capitol steps, Bates, Jackson-Reed and other tribal leaders and environmental activists charged that officials, and the Newsom administration in particular, are failing the people and species that benefit from the Sacramento River system by appeasing wealthy farms and other big water users.

The closure of the fishing season was not an inevitable result of this drought, say members of this broad coalition, which includes the Shingle Springs Band of Miwok Indians, the Winnemem Wintu Tribe and Restore the Delta. Instead, they say, it was a result of choices made by state and federal officials.

This view is shared even by some former state employees.

“It’s a damning reflection on the state of California water management and policy and just how degraded our aquatic ecosystems have become,” said Max Gomberg, water consultant and former climate change mitigation strategist at the State Water Resources Control Board (also known as the State Water Board), in an interview with KQED.

The season’s closure, he said, is due to the lack of government action on its legal and moral responsibilities to protect the state’s natural heritage, its wildlife and ecosystems, against the agricultural industry, which he characterized as “overly focused on short-term profits and too used to getting its way with respect to regulatory policy.”

Gomberg was so frustrated by what he saw as the Newsom administration’s commitment to a dysfunctional status quo and a desire to control regulatory agencies, that he quit the water board last summer in protest over its direction, or lack of it — a direction he said comes from the top.

“It got to a point where [I was] watching on the one hand the [water] board make commitments towards racial justice and equity and environmental restoration, and then on the other hand, being impeded to honor those commitments by the governor’s office,” Gomberg said. “I realized that I could no longer tolerate that state of affairs.”

Storing, sharing and saving water in California is a complex cotillion among federal, state and local agencies — and has been a point of social tension for decades. But conservation groups, and those aligned with them, say the state has failed in its role for years and the situation has gotten worse under Newsom.

Confused about who manages California’s water? Jump to a quick primer.

Before Newsom took office

Newsom and current state officials say they are seeking to balance the needs of the environment and a state full of thirsty people and businesses — and that climate change and a punishing drought have dealt them unprecedented challenges.

But there was a change in tenor regarding California water policy even before Newsom officially took office.

Under former Gov. Jerry Brown, the California Water Board completed the first phase of its water quality control plan review in 2018 — a scientific review process that tries to ensure fish have what they need. It dramatically increased environmental flow standards for the San Joaquin River’s three lower tributaries — the Tuolumne, Stanislaus and Merced — and was expected to greatly improve the health of the rivers, but it was unpopular among commercial farmers who stood to receive less water. (These plans are supposed to be evaluated, and updated if need be, every three years. In reality, it takes decades.)

“This was a major accomplishment,” said Jon Rosenfield, senior scientist with San Francisco Baykeeper. But “the Newsom administration, before it even became the Newsom administration, tried to block that update.”

Newsom sent a letter to Board Chair Felicia Marcus (PDF), dated Nov. 6, 2018, the day he was elected, asking the board to postpone the changes, saying the extension would allow the state and water stakeholders to keep negotiating voluntary agreements.

When Newsom took office in January, he did not reappoint Marcus as Water Board chair. While Marcus had attracted the ire of conservative politicians such as Tom McClintock during her tenure, many in the environmental nonprofit and academic California water policy world saw her as an effective champion for fish. They were disappointed with the change in direction, which they saw as backtracking, signaled by her removal.

“Witnessing the agency’s ability to tackle big challenges nearly eviscerated by this Administration has been gut wrenching,” Gomberg wrote in his resignation letter.

Thus it is that while state law has officially afforded greater protections and more water to the San Joaquin River and its tributaries, the fish in that system have not benefited yet. The updates have not been implemented, and the state has not made anyone responsible to provide the water.

The same month the Water Board released its proposal for the first phase of updates, in July 2018, it also signaled that its second phase, covering the Sacramento River and the delta, would recommend that more water flow out of the delta and the state divert less water to farms.

Newsom blocked the first phase of the update from going into effect and the second phase from proceeding, seeking instead to form “voluntary agreements.”

These are governance structures formed by the state, water users and participating conservation groups working together, instead of the rules being written by the Water Board itself. Water agencies and some conservation groups, such as Ducks Unlimited, support this approach, saying it is more flexible, saves time and avoids litigation.

When Newsom took charge of the state’s vast water infrastructure

When asked “who is to blame” for the closure of the current salmon season, Baykeeper’s Rosenfield points squarely at the state.

“The state is responsible for reviewing and updating water quality standards. And for at least 14 years, the state has not acknowledged that its water quality standards are inadequate to protect fisheries and the native fish in the Bay Delta writ large — not just endangered species, not just commercial fisheries, like all of them,” he said.

The State Water Board last overhauled these standards in 1995. They are supposed to be reviewed every three years. The current review process began in 2008 and is now stalled.

In reports and memos, the State Water Board, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the former Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell have all said the current regulations for the San Francisco Bay Delta do not protect the ecosystem and are not enough to ensure the future of salmon.

Rosenfield points to a decrease in water quality in the delta, seen in the increasing frequency of harmful algal blooms — stagnant, green water that’s toxic to touch. What’s needed, he says, is more flowing water and fewer diversions.

“These are all signs that the water quality standards have been inadequate,” said Rosenfield. “And yet Gov. Newsom has actively blocked updates of those water quality standards in favor of voluntary agreement that he wants to negotiate with water districts and that still haven’t materialized.”

Tribes, environmental justice organizations and other conservation groups strongly oppose this non-regulatory route, saying the process excludes them when the real, important decisions are being made and still prioritizes water deliveries to grow export crops over native fish.

Rosenfield also faults Newsom for, early in his administration, vetoing a bill, SB1, passed by wide margins that would have allowed the state to adopt Obama-era federal endangered species regulations as state regulations.

“It was seen as a bulwark against the Trump administration rolling back environmental protections at the federal level,” said Rosenfield. “Gov. Newsom vetoed that legislation over his own party’s majority and said, ‘We have the tools that we need to deal with this. We can protect the fish on our fish and water quality on our own, and we will.’ And he hasn’t.”

Instead, six out of the last 10 years, and in all of the last three years, the state waived its basic water quality standards, which means that flows have been reduced both in critically dry years and even in wetter-than-normal years with an abundant snowpack.

A large fish with a crooked nose and a bright pink belly.
This coho salmon’s red belly indicates it is spawning. (U.S. Geological Survey)

What happened to the fish that should have been caught this year?

Eggs from the fish that should have been in the ocean this winter and spring were laid in their natal streams back in the fall of 2020.

But so few survived the warm, shallow river and drought conditions that fisheries managers decided it could imperil species survival for any of them to be caught commercially or recreationally.

It was a case of climate whiplash. While 2019 was a wet year, 2020 was dry.

“And even though we had just come off of pretty much full reservoirs in 2019, too much water was delivered [to irrigators] in 2019,” said Rosenfield, who says water managers did not prepare for the 2020 drought.

“The Bureau of Reclamation and the Department of Water Resources are sort of notorious for not preparing for drought,” he added. “They treat every wet year as though next year is going to be wet.”

But, when dry years began again in 2020, not much backup water was in reserve. And then?

“They start asking to cut environmental regulations,” Rosenfield said.

He points to one particular example with the Bureau of Reclamation’s decision to reduce flows below Shasta Dam in the fall of 2020, under the oversight of the State Water Board. Endangered winter-run Chinook salmon were no longer in the river, having spawned the previous spring.

The agency was able to deliver water to “their clients downstream,” Rosenfield said. “But they did it in such a way that wound up de-watering the nests — the redds — of fall-run Chinook salmon.”

These fish make up the heart of the West Coast salmon fishery. The bureau prioritized one group of salmon over the other so they could still serve clients, Rosenfield said.

In early February through mid-April of 2021, the water temperature below Shasta Dam was too hot. Fish suffocated. The amount of water flowing was too low to meet legal requirements.

“And the fact that they didn’t even meet the already very low and known-to-be-inadequate river flow standard that applies in a critical dry year,” said Rosenfield, “it tells you that the survival was very bad.”

In an experiment, about 1,000 hatchery fish tagged with transmitters were released near Red Bluff on the Sacramento River. Of these, just three survived to swim past Sacramento, and none survived to exit the delta and make it into the ocean.

Green and sliver fish swim through grey water.
A Chinook salmon, along with a school of shad. (Photo b Jeff T. Green/Getty Images)

A long, extended decline for salmon

Chuck Bonham, director of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, said that the closure of this year’s salmon season occurred against a backdrop of a century of ecological devastation.

“If we only focus on this year, it does a disservice to salmon and their legacy,” he told KQED. “Because the reality is since maybe the 1950s, what’s been going on for the populations of salmon is a long, extended decline.”

He points to roads, dams and the rest of the built environment affecting salmon, cutting them off from the bulk of their natural habitat. (Two California academics specializing in salmon also pointed to the decades-long degradation of salmon habitat as a key reason for the season’s closure.)

Layer on top of that, Bonham says, huge demands for water from 40 million people and the rapidly increasing climate change impacts, Western society has effectively dealt salmon a one-two-three punch.

Referencing the critical time period during the spring and summer of 2021, when the fish that could otherwise have been caught in the ocean this year were dying, Bonham said the collection of state and federal agencies that manage flow and temperature below Shasta Dam had to make very challenging decisions.

“We didn’t do well at it,” he said, speaking frankly. “And as a result, we had increased mortality.”

However, he said, things were different the following year; the collection of agencies learned from missteps in 2021.

“We — this agency dynamic — did better trying to achieve those flow and temperature objectives below Shasta Dam,” Bonham said. “And we had much lower mortality and impacts.”

But it came at a cost to some water users.

“One of the things that also occurred was, in the Sacramento Valley, agriculture fallowed about 500,000 acres, which is an unprecedented result from their perspective,” he said.

The state gave farms and cities virtually no water from the State Water Project in 2022.

When asked about the state’s preference for seeking voluntary agreements instead of the normal regulatory route, Bonham acknowledged that many advocates view them as insufficient. But, he said, they’re part of a sincere effort to make progress amid “seemingly unwinnable” water wars.

“I just want to get something done,” he said. “I’ve been watching this debate for a long time and I think what’s mostly needed is putting water back in our rivers, combined with significant habitat restoration as fast as we can do it. There’s great promise in the voluntary agreements, but I understand the criticisms.”

In public comments Gov. Newsom has pushed away the idea of any blame.

At a March 24 press conference, at a ground recharge project in Yolo County, he announced he was easing drought restrictions, aiming to boost water storage. A reporter asked if he thought his policies may have done some harm to salmon.

“Absolutely not,” Newsom said. He pointed out that what went wrong with this year’s salmon occurred three years ago, implying he could not have played a role. (Newsom was sworn in as governor four years and six months ago.)

“So anyone who suggests otherwise is being purposely misleading or unknowingly misleading. I think it’s more the former often in terms of what I hear out there and some of the extreme statements that are made,” he said, hinting at the fish activists. He added that he listens to expert advice and takes salmon issues seriously.

“I’ll take a back seat to no governor in the United States of America in terms of my environmental stewardship and passion,” he said.

A group of protestors in colorful clothing stand with banners and signs in front of a white, ornate building.
Morning Star Gali, vice-chairperson of the Pit River Tribe, told the assembled crowd that ‘we cannot have truth and healing for California tribes and drive salmon into extinction,’ at the Day of Action for California Water Justice and Salmon rally on July 5, 2023, at the state Capitol. (Danielle Venton/KQED)

Tribes say the state’s inaction is a violation of civil rights

However, several tribal and environmental justice groups, including the Shingle Springs Band of Miwok Indians and the Winnemem Wintu Tribe, along with Little Manila Rising, a neighborhood group from South Stockton, feel so neglected by the state and the current administration, they are petitioning the Environmental Protection Agency to step in to enforce the Clean Water Act.

They say the State Water Board’s failures to update the Bay-Delta Plan is a violation of their civil rights, and the board’s mismanagement of the Bay delta has disproportionately harmed Native tribes and communities of color.

Addressing the assembled crowd on Wednesday, Malissa Tayaba, Vice-Chairwoman of the Shingle Springs Band of Miwok Indians, said, “The state is going against its own policies and commitment to consult with tribes on matters impacting our communities and tribal citizens.”

Voluntary agreements, she said, did not offer a solution as they failed to provide enough ecological protections for the delta.

Morning Star Gali, vice-chairperson of the Pit River Tribe, said if the health of salmon cannot be improved, Indigenous people cannot thrive.

“The governor’s office has promised California Native people truth and healing and has taken some positive steps,” Gali said. “But he’s made a lot of decisions that favor agriculture over all other interests. We cannot have truth and healing for California tribes and drive salmon into extinction.”

A quick primer on California’s confusing water policy

Two main canals come out of the delta and deliver water to the Central Valley and Southern California: the federally run Central Valley Project, federally managed by the Bureau of Reclamation, and the state-run State Water Project, managed by the California Department of Water Resources.

The State Water Board (also called the State Water Resources Control Board) sets regulatory standards and is supposed to enforce them. Serving underneath the main board are nine Regional Water Quality Control Boards.

The governor appoints all members of these boards and the state Senate confirms them. Keeping an eye on fish in the river, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife enforces the state’s endangered species laws, while NOAA Fisheries, or the National Marine Fisheries Service, is in charge of federal endangered species protections.

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While the agencies must work together to keep the cogs of California’s water policy wheel spinning, each has a different objective and mission.

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