In summary

Regulatory agencies must do everything they can to make the rivers downstream of the dams cold enough for salmon to survive.

By John McManus, Special to CalMatters

John McManus is president of the Golden State Salmon Association.

Last summer and fall the vast majority of juvenile endangered Sacramento River winter run Chinook salmon were killed by lethally hot river temperatures while a handful of agriculture operators got the lion’s share of available water. This was made possible by water rules established in the 19th century before salmon regularly faced threats from drought and overheated rivers.

Many Sacramento River fall run salmon – the backbone of California’s billion-dollar salmon fishing industry – were also lost to hot water. So too were a significant number of threatened spring run salmon. A recent announcement from the federal Bureau of Reclamation suggests a repeat of the fish kills is likely again this year unless we do something different. 

One immediate action is to move the salmon to colder water. 

Central Valley salmon are currently limited to the 10% of their historic habitat remaining below dams down on the Valley floor. But this is where the water is heating up. To deal with climate change, regulatory agencies must do everything they can to make the rivers downstream of the dams cold enough for salmon to survive. They also need to give all four Central Valley salmon runs access to higher elevation habitat, above the dams in reliable cold-water reaches of river. 

That should start with returning winter run salmon to their native McCloud River – and to the Winnemem Wintu tribe. This reintroduction has been stalled for years.

On the Feather River, it means moving beyond a deal agreed to 15 years ago but never implemented. In 2007, the Feather River Habitat Expansion Agreement was negotiated around a simple idea. 

Rather than return spring run Chinook salmon – listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act – to the upper Feather River, the Department of Water Resources and Pacific Gas and Electric Co., which own the dams on the Feather River, agreed to restore adequate spring run habitat below the dams. Since DWR and PG&E failed at this, the National Marine Fisheries Service should use its authority to make the parties move adult salmon above the dams and trap and move their offspring back downstream.

This can’t happen soon enough, given that the National Marine Fisheries Service is considering reclassifying spring run as endangered, instead of threatened, due to the mounting threats they face.   

There are similar successful reintroduction models in Oregon and Washington for California to build on. This approach has been embraced by leaders of state and federal fish agencies. After 15 years of stalling on the Feather River, it’s time to act.  

Other opportunities to allow salmon to expand their spawning habitat include the Eel River, where PG&E’s unwanted salmon-blocking Scott Dam should come out.  The small, obsolete dams on Battle Creek that PG&E owns, but no longer wants, should come out as well, allowing natural spawning for multiple salmon runs in this cold-water creek.  

On Putah Creek, a bypass channel is needed to allow fish to swim around a small, salmon-killing dam. On the Yuba River, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers should allow spring and fall run salmon to pass Englebright Dam to reach upstream habitat.   

These effective ideas to expand salmon habitat are not new, but they’ve been stalled or have been overlooked for years. The health of our salmon runs, our rivers and California’s salmon fishing industry requires us to get these gridlocked opportunities moving to improve salmon climate resilience.  

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John McManus has also written about balancing the pain of drought on farmers and fishermen equitably and that Gov. Gavin Newsom needs to lead state agencies to counter the Trump administration’s attack on California’s environment.

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