As Fish Die, Salmon Advocates Say Newsom’s Drought Declaration Highlights Water Injustice

Governor Gavin Newsom today expanded his drought emergency declaration to 39 additional counties, including the Klamath River, Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and Tulare Lake Watershed counties where he said “accelerated action is needed to protect public health, safety and the environment.”

A total of 41 of California’s 58 counties are now under a drought state of emergency, representing 30 percent of the state’s population.

The expanded drought declaration was released as juvenile Chinook salmon are already dying of disease in the low water conditions in the main stem of the Klamath River.

The Governor said “climate change-induced early warm temperatures and extremely dry soils” have further depleted the expected runoff water from the Sierra-Cascade snowpack, resulting in “historic and unanticipated reductions in the amount of water flowing to major reservoirs, especially in Klamath River, Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and Tulare Lake Watershed counties.”

“With the reality of climate change abundantly clear in California, we’re taking urgent action to address acute water supply shortfalls in northern and central California while also building our water resilience to safeguard communities in the decades ahead,” said Governor Newsom. “We’re working with local officials and other partners to protect public health and safety and the environment, and call on all Californians to help meet this challenge by stepping up their efforts to save water.”

Salmon and Delta advocates criticized the Governor’s declaration for catering to large corporate agribusiness interests —and pointed out the poor water management by the state and federal governments in the Sacramento and Trinity-Klamath Basins during recent droughts.

“Today Central Valley lawmakers and Governor Newsom used the drought, which is the result of climate change, to advocate for  taxpayer-funded pork projects, such as private canals and the Sites Reservoir, for industrial agriculture, which uses up to 80% of the state’s developed water,” said Regina Chichizola, co-coordinator of Save California Salmon, in a statement.

“Poor water management during the last drought led to 90% of the salmon dying and toxic algal blooms in cities’ water supplies. Tribal and fishing communities are suffering,” she noted.

“The fact is we can’t dam our way out of climate change. Industrial agriculture uses most of the state’s water, while exporting their crops and offering little benefit residents of this state. California’s antiquated water rights system leaves cities and the environment high and dry while almonds get clean water,” emphasized Chichizola.

“These talks about water storage, drought relief, and voluntary agreements are happening without consent with the California Tribal communities and other salmon and clean water advocates,” pointed out Morning Star Gali Pit River Tribal Member and Save California Tribal Organizer.

Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, Executive Director of Restore the Delta, also responded to the declaration, noting that  “Governor Newsom’s latest declaration tears pages from the playbook Governor Brown used in 2013 and 2014.”

“Everyone gets something except the Delta,” she stated. “We get salinity barriers. This will disrupt waterways and create stagnant pools with larger harmful algal blooms throughout the summer and fall. These algal blooms pose dangers to public health through water contact to people and dogs, but also from the emission of airborne contaminants.”

“Under this plan, multiple fish species in the Delta, like Chinook salmon and Delta smelt, may become part of the sixth great mass extinction on Governor Newsom’s watch,” Barrigan-Parrilla concluded.

Tim Stroshane, Restore the Delta policy analyst, said Governor Newsom’s latest declaration signals that “temporary urgency change” petitions will be sought by the US Bureau of Reclamation and the Department of Water Resources to waive water quality objectives in the Delta.

“Today’s proclamation also gestures in the direction of preserving existing cold-water pools in the upstream reservoirs, particularly at Shasta and Oroville lakes. This is likely too little too late. Unfortunately, these reservoirs are already extremely low, and their cold-water pools were dissipated over this past winter when supplies were shipped to southern California and San Luis Reservoir south of the Delta,” said Stroshane.

The poor water management by the Department of Water Resources and the Bureau of Reclamation that has excerbated the current drought is revealed in my analysis of water exports out of the Delta for the past decade.

In 8 out of the past 10 years, the combined water exports from the state and federal water projects have exceeded the 3 million acre feet annual export figure that many believe to be the maximum amount of water that can be exported from the Delta without destroying the ecosystem and harming fish species.

In every water year except two, 2014 and 2015, the state and federal projects exported well over 3 million acre feet of water from the Delta.

The 3 million acre feet cap of water exports in all years is a key recommendation of the Environmental Water Caucus (EWC) updated solutions plan titled “A Sustainable Water Plan for California.”

In fact, 2011 was the all time record export year with 6.67 million acre feet of water diverted from the Delta, followed closely behind by the 6.46 million acre feet exported in 2017. 2018 saw 4.62 million acre feet exported from the Delta, while 2019 saw 5.3 million acre feet exported and 2020 saw 3.65 million acre feet exported:

If the state doesn’t conserve enough water to maintain carryover storage so that salmon can successfully spawn and the juvenile fish can outmigrate, then we end up in the situation where the CDFW had to truck all of the Sacramento River hatchery salmon smolts downriver to the bay so that fish are able to survive in a drought year.

For more information, see here.

The situation with out migrating juvenile salmon is very dire in the Klamath Basin now. An email from CDFW environmental scientist Dan Troxel on May 7 says the mainstem Klamath is at its highest level “RED,” indicating an imminent or active fish kill.

“Well it seems the unfortunate potential outcomes are already manifesting themselves on the mainstem Klamath. Our partners at USFWS and Yurok Tribal Fisheries are seeing some very distressing signs in the 0+ out-migrating Chinook salmon; a substantial portion of fish showing clinical signs of disease (C. shasta) and even dead fish being caught in outmigrant traps,” he wrote.

“Due to this, the mainstem Klamath is at its highest Readiness Level “RED”, indicating an imminent or active fish kill. Unfortunately these few inch long salmon mortalities don’t draw the same attention as adult fish, but it is just as important to actively monitor the situation and implement KFHAT’s Fish Kill Response plan if deemed necessary,” he stated.

According to the KFHAT report,  “The Mid and Lower Klamath are showing signs of diseased and dead Chinook salmon noted by partners at Yurok Tribe. Active juvenile fish kill currently happening. Will continue to monitor situation and re-evaluate within the next few days.”

On the Sacramento River and its tributaries, the situation is so bad that all of the juvenile chinook salmon (smolts) from state fish hatcheries are getting truck rides to saltwater this spring to increase their survival, triggered by projected poor conditions in the Sacramento River and other Central Valley rivers this year.

Dan Bacher is an environmental journalist in Sacramento. He can be reached at: Dan Bacher