Illegal Diversion of Water Threatens to End Chinook Salmon Survival in California

Conservationists sue U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and Rice Growers for mismanagement leading to demise of near-extinct salmon


Maggie Caldwell, Earthjustice, (415) 217-2084


Kimiko Martinez, NRDC, (310) 434-2344

Environmental groups yesterday filed a request to supplement their complaint against the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and growers who flood irrigate rice in the Sacramento Valley for mismanaging water supplies that should have been used to protect California’s once-booming salmon runs and fishing industry.

The new claims—asserted by the Natural Resources Defense Council, Earthjustice, San Francisco Baykeeper, The Bay Institute, the Winnemem Wintu Tribe, and Pacific Coast Federation of Fisherman’s Association/Institute for Fisheries Resources—allege that the Bureau unlawfully diverted limited water supplies from behind Shasta Dam for the use of corporate agriculture, instead of using the water to keep Chinook salmon alive below the Dam.

Several runs of Chinook salmon—including spring and winter runs—are on the brink of extinction in California, weakening the backbone of the salmon fishery. The Bureau’s actions led to the death of more than 95 percent of young winter-run Chinook salmon emerging from eggs and rearing below Shasta Dam in 2014 and appear to have nearly wiped another generation of young salmon this year.

Less than 2 percent of the water flowing through California’s Bay-Delta estuary was dedicated to protecting fish and wildlife in this drought year, while rice growers received millions of acre-feet of water to flood their fields several feet deep in the drought.

“The federal government’s mismanagement of limited water supplies in the ongoing drought is a near-death blow for Chinook salmon and the thousands of people whose livelihood is tied to the salmon industry,” said Kate Poole, litigation director for NRDC’s water program. “The kicker is that we have the ability to create enough water for all of the cities and farms in the state. Our leaders should be focused on putting the available solutions in place that can provide water for us all in dry times, while at the same time protecting California’s jobs and wildlife.”

Instead of relying on outdated water supply models, state and federal leaders should be aggressively implementing 21st century water solutions across California, such as water recycling and stormwater capture. Meanwhile, the agricultural industry should be investing in modern, efficient irrigation technology, rather than flooding fields during a drought.

“The mismanagement of our water isn’t just devastating ecosystems, it’s devastating California and Oregon’s fishing industries,” said Tim Sloane, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fisherman’s Associations, “which in some cases rely entirely on the cold clean water flowing through the Sacramento River and the Delta to irrigate their main crop: wild caught California King salmon. It’s a sad case of privatizing our most crucial public trust resource at the expense of working Californians.” 

Winter-run and spring-run Chinook salmon are federally protected species under the Endangered Species Act, requiring that water diversions be timed and distributed to provide the cold, clean water that salmon need to reproduce in their headwater spawning streams, and to survive their journey through the San Francisco Bay Delta to the ocean. Saving these salmon helps protect the fall-run Chinook that supports thousands of jobs in California’s 150-year old salmon fishing industry and fishing communities up and down the coast. 

“If the Bureau of Reclamation persists in its mismanagement of the state’s water during the drought, that will be a virtual death sentence for the Chinook salmon,” said Trent Orr, Earthjustice attorney. “In delivering excessive amounts of water to powerful water agencies in the Sacramento Valley two years in a row, the Bureau squandered cold water reserves essential to successful salmon spawning. Tragically, all but a tiny fraction of the eggs laid and fry hatched in 2014 and 2015 by two highly endangered Chinook runs perished from high water temperatures. This gross mismanagement of our water must stop.”

“Reclamation’s refusal to consider how the water contracts are affecting the needs of endangered Chinook salmon has privileged these senior water rights holders over all others and pushed the salmon runs closer to extinction during the drought than we have ever experienced before,” said Gary Bobker, program director at The Bay Institute. “After investing so much effort to bring winter- and spring-run Chinook back from the edge over the past two decades—including the adoption of stronger salmon protections that the courts have upheld—the federal agencies have chosen to ignore what they know and let the contracts determine how water operations are conducted, in the process managing to devastate the emerging salmon three years in a row, including this year. The salmon can’t wait any longer for the situation to change.”

“There is no greater task for this generation than to protect our Mother Earth for the generations to come,” said Gary Mulcahy, spokesman for the Winnemem Wintu Tribe. “The salmon are on the cusp of extinction, and the Winnemem Wintu are on the brink of cultural destruction. It’s time to stop the madness of politicizing our water and caving to those who can pay to suck every last drop. Water use isn’t a right. It’s a responsibility.”

 “The science is clear that the Bay-Delta estuary and the species that live there need adequate cold freshwater flows to survive,” said George Torgun, managing attorney at San Francisco Baykeeper. “Despite court rulings to the contrary, Reclamation has simply continued its business-as-usual approach, resulting in the illegal take of countless fish including imperiled runs of Chinook salmon. These blatant violations of the Endangered Species Act must stop immediately.”

Read the legal document.

Fisherman Jose Chi holds up a salmon, caught during the spring 2014 run, at Fort Bragg, CA.
Fisherman Jose Chi holds up a salmon, caught during the spring 2014 run, at Fort Bragg, CA. (Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice)

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