Salmon in the Sacramento River, which produces most of the king salmon caught in California and Oregon, are struggling. As a result, for the second time in two years, the Pacific Fishery Management Council voted to ban almost all ocean salmon fishing off California in 2009.
There's good news: Major portions of the Sacramento River are still undammed and can produce salmon once again.
And bad news: California's seemingly insatiable demand for water creates two huge obstacles for salmon.
The first obstacle is the huge pumps in the Sacramento/San Joaquin River delta that suck water out of the rivers and pump it to cotton and hay fields and cities in the southern part of the state. These pumps suck baby salmon in and grind them up or cause them to lose their way to the sea.
The second obstacle is that water managers no longer hold cold water in reserve for release during the fall to cool salmon eggs incubating in the river gravel. (Salmon eggs need cold, clean water or else they won't hatch.) These days, that cold water is instead released early in the year to water crops. High numbers of salmon eggs have died off in recent years because of this lack of cold water.
The bottom line: We've allowed the powers-that-be to trade healthy salmon runs in the Sacramento River, which sustain the economic health of coastal communities all up and down California and Oregon, for healthy crops of cotton and hay. Last I checked, you couldn't eat either cotton or hay. And though hay and cotton can be grown in many places, salmon can't.
Another spot of good news: Thanks to an Earthjustice lawsuit, the federal government is scheduled to release a new set of rules on June 2 addressing the problems cited above. We've had a sneak peak at what’s coming and early indications are good. Water managers may be instructed to leave a little more water for the salmon to spawn in and there may be calls for changes at the pumps to reduce the fish kill. Stay tuned.