Running on Empty: Fate of Salmon at Stake in Western Water Fight

Entire runs of salmon are losing out to a system of dams, pumps and diversions that take the flow of life from rivers along America’s West Coast.


On a day in late July of 2013, the coastal town of Ft. Bragg, California, smells and sounds of salmon. Fishing boats crowd the tiny harbor after chasing great schools of the fish up the California coast—and the docks echo with stories of success.

“I caught that one!” yells a proud fisherwoman as an especially massive king salmon is loaded into a hauling bucket. Moments later, the bottom of the bucket opens and hundreds of pounds of silvery fish pour out—a cause for celebration repeated throughout the fleet as people exult in an uncommon salmon bonanza.

Tom Davison is among them. Rosy-skinned from fishing all day in the sun, the lifelong fisherman proclaims that “the fishing is stellar”—as is the local economy. The influx of fishermen like Davison equals a dramatic rise in sales at local restaurants, motels, supply stores and other businesses in Ft. Bragg and coastal communities like it along the West Coast that come alive when salmon fishing is good. Together, these towns constitute a multibillion dollar fishing industry that supports hard-working families and businesses.

Three years ago, a very wet season swelled California’s rivers and provided plenty of flow for young salmon on their way to the ocean. This year’s good fishing is thanks to that water—and restrictions that keep it in the rivers instead of being diverted or imprisoned by a maze of dams, canals and pumps that export river water to insatiable industrial farms in the San Joaquin Valley.

The struggle over that water is ongoing between corporate farms and salmon advocates like Earthjustice, which stepped into the fray 25 years ago when wild salmon runs were about to be left high and dry.

It Began With a Frantic Phone Call

In 1988, Earthjustice attorney Mike Sherwood received an alarming phone call from the president of the American Fisheries Society: Winter-run king salmon on California’s Sacramento River were in free fall—only 2,000 adults had returned to spawn, down from an average of 200,000 before the river’s first dam was constructed. The salmon nursery that nature built had been reconstructed into a salmon killer, driving the fish towards extinction.

Sherwood sued on behalf of the AFS, in what was the first attempt ever to force the government to list an imperiled species under the federal Endangered Species Act. Due to its novelty, he lost the case in the lower courts—but he would win the fight.

A year later, as Sherwood was working on his appeal, fewer than 200 adult king salmon returned to spawn. Faced with the very real possibility of extinction, the government voluntarily listed Sacramento winter-run king salmon as an endangered species. This required the government to draft a recovery plan that pulled the species back from the edge.

The Sacramento winter-run was just the tip of the iceberg. Salmon runs up and down the coasts of California, Oregon and Washington were in sharp decline due to dams, water pollution, logging and other factors. Sherwood sued multiple times to force the government to list dozens of imperiled salmon runs. The government settled these suits by agreeing to list most of the species, thus affording them the protections of the Endangered Species Act.

Today, Earthjustice attorneys use the legal foundation that Sherwood built to take on the threats to a stable recovery of wild salmon runs—threats that were unappreciated decades ago as engineers started corralling California’s free-flowing waters.

A Silver Sheet Loses Its Luster

When poet Joaquin Miller came to California during the Gold Rush, he saw salmon so plentiful at the head of the Sacramento River that the water looked like a “silver sheet.” Conditions on the river would soon change.

Cities and big agricultural projects in California started spreading like wildfire in the late-19th century. Both required tremendous amounts of water, so the state domesticated its wild rivers to meet the need. Shasta Dam, the main barrier on the Sacramento, was completed in 1945. Other dams followed, as did the system of diversions and water pumps that subjugated the river to human industry.

This massive plumbing system is good for big-business farms and urban sprawl, but it’s terrible for salmon, which evolved in freeflowing rivers. Water diversions for irrigation make a wet river dry—salmon frequently don’t have adequate water to migrate to the ocean to feed or head back upriver to spawn. Additionally, the pumps that pull water out of the river are so strong that salmon often get sucked inside and diced to death.

Water politics are equally dangerous. California’s biggest water users—politically connected industrial farms—howl over every drop left in the river to benefit salmon instead of their crops of almonds, hay and alfalfa, and portray the issue as a survival contest between fish and people. They conveniently omit that salmon runs support a multibillion dollar fishing industry and that there is enough water to keep salmon and the fishing industry alive without fields going fallow.

In the Pacific Northwest, the state of salmon is similar. The Columbia/Snake rivers basin—which flows from high mountain headwaters in Idaho, draining six states before plunging into the Pacific—was the West’s best salmon producer. Now, it is the most heavily dammed river system on earth. For every 100 salmon that attempt returning in the Columbia River basin today, only one will make it back to spawn.

“It’s really hard for little salmon to get past these dams,” says Earthjustice Managing Attorney Todd True. “They can go through the dam’s turbines—not a good option. They can go through the fish bypass systems, which is a little better, but they still get beat up. Or they can go over the dam, which has the highest survival rate.” In order to swim over the dam, young salmon need a sufficient flow of water. But the dams aren’t operated with salmon in mind—their primary purpose is electricity generation. Decimation of salmon runs is the collateral damage.

The Bonneville Power Administration sells the dam-generated electricity to regional utilities. Like big agriculture in California, the BPA is entrenched in its opposition to anything that would cost them water, chief of which is outright removal of four especially problematic dams on the lower Snake River that provide little in the way of needed power. BPA argues that accommodations for salmon will drive the cost of regional electricity upward, but independent studies show that electricity generation lost from removing these dams can be offset through conservation, efficiency and renewable power—without significantly affecting the cost of electricity.

Governmental Corruption and Disdain

The government’s disregard for salmon has been egregious. George W. Bush’s administration declared that the dams, pumps and water diversions stifling the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers pose no threat to salmon. Earthjustice sued and uncovered corruption: federal scientists had expressed the exact opposite opinion but were overruled. The years since have seen improvements, but the state’s big water users haven’t backed down. Earthjustice’s primary goal in California remains to secure water for salmon and prevent state and federally operated water pumps from killing them.

In the Columbia/Snake river basin, Earthjustice attorneys have repeatedly sued (and won) to ensure that fish-killing dams are operated more favorably for endangered salmon—for instance, by allowing more water flow over the dams when young salmon are migrating out to the ocean, which facilitates the safest option for dam crossing.

Unfortunately, the government has failed to deal with the issue head-on. On behalf of salmon advocates, and with allies that include the State of Oregon and the Nez Perce tribe, Earthjustice has been challenging weak salmon protection plans. In 2005, Earthjustice won its most significant court ruling, which resulted in special spring and summer water releases to aid the migration of young salmon out to the ocean.

More recently, in 2011 a federal judge agreed with Earthjustice’s argument that the government’s plan to ensure that dams don’t kill huge numbers of fish was woefully inadequate. The government issued a revised plan in early 2014, but unfortunately it is yet another recycled version of earlier plans that the courts have rejected. Meanwhile, removal of the four especially damaging dams on the lower Snake River remains the path salmon experts have identified as the best and most cost-effective way to salmon recovery.

Climate Change Adds to Uncertainty

Back in Ft. Bragg, the bright atmosphere of July’s great fishing is darkened by the reality of last winter’s below-average precipitation. If state and federal officials don’t operate California’s rivers to benefit migrating salmon this year, fishing towns like Ft. Bragg will face a poor season in a few years and, worst case, complete closure of the fishery—an economic disaster. It wouldn’t be a first: complete closure of ocean salmon fishing occurred in 2008 and 2009 after records were broken on the volume of water pumped from the Sacramento River delta.

Dry conditions like this year’s are only expected to increase as climate change intensifies, which is why keeping water in western rivers is so critical to the survival of salmon. To pull salmon off the endangered species list for good will require a collaborative effort. Last year, the governor of Oregon called for all parties involved in the Columbia/Snake River salmon controversy—fishermen and salmon advocates, tribal leaders, dam operators, water users and government agencies—to sit down and craft a compromise solution that benefits the long-term survival of an ecologically, economically and culturally important fish.

Earthjustice supports this approach, says organization President Trip Van Noppen, but he adds that the organization is prepared to go back to court if need be to continue our fight to restore wild salmon populations.

Written by Sam Edmondson. First published in the Fall 2013 issue of the Earthjustice Quarterly Magazine.