A National Academy of Sciences review panel today announced findings that federal protections for salmon and other fish in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta are scientifically justified. The determination by the panel comes after months of controversy sparked by the plan’s modest restrictions on massive pumps in the Delta. These huge pumps export water to farms and cities south of the Delta, but also cause Delta rivers to run backwards, pulling large numbers of baby salmon and other fish to their deaths.
The new federal plan, won by Earthjustice attorneys, requires the pumps to run below maximum capacity from January to June when baby salmon migrate through the Delta to the sea. Before the plan was put in place, unrestricted pumping not only contributed to the collapse of threatened Central Valley salmon runs, but helped drive the population of non-threatened, commercially-valuable Sacramento River king salmon to such low levels that ocean salmon fishing along one thousand miles of coastline was completely closed for the first time in history during 2008 and 2009. Sacramento king salmon have traditionally formed the backbone of sport and commercial salmon fishing in California and Oregon, and the closure cost thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars of lost economic activity in both states.
Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) had requested the scientific review in 2009, at the urging of powerful agribusiness giants Stuart Resnick, Westlands Water District, and others pushing for maximum water exports from the Delta. It’s important to note that Westlands is a junior water rights holder, meaning they are the first to lose access to water if there is a shortage due to drought. The law also says that the needs of salmon, and the people who rely on salmon to make a living, have first rights to water.
Back in 2009, those pushing for the review of the plan said that they would respect the findings of the National Academy of Sciences, even as Westlands continued to demand that the courts and Congress lift the plan’s restrictions on Delta pumping. Now the question remains: Resnick and Westlands have gotten the review they asked for, but will they respect its findings and stop pushing to overturn protections for the West’s iconic salmon runs? We’ll soon see.