A Cal Alum’s Recipe for More Tuolumne River Salmon: Add Water

By Glen Martin

The Tuolumne River has long been revered by whitewater kayakers and rafters for its pristine wilderness canyon and challenging rapids. But “The T,” as it’s known by river-runners, was once famed for something else: Salmon. Before the Hetch Hetchy and Don Pedro Dams were built on the river’s upper reaches in the last century, the Tuolumne supported up to 130,000 spawning Chinook salmon annually.

The reservoirs created by the dams were deemed necessary to accommodate California’s booming population—they still are, for that matter. Hetch Hetchy supplies San Francisco with most of its water, and also serves Alameda, Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties. Most of the water from sprawling Don Pedro Reservoir irrigates the vast croplands of the San Joaquin Valley.

But dams aren’t salmon-friendly structures. The T’s runs plummeted after the reservoirs filled, inundating prime spawning grounds and shunting water to coastal cities and San Joaquin Valley megafarms. Last year, only 434 Tuolumne salmon made it back to their natal stream to spawn.

Ultimately, the fate of the Tuolumne’s salmon could hinge on the configuration of a state water distribution strategy known as the Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan. Though the plan has been in the works for more than two decades, it has never been fully implemented. The State Water Resources Control Board is now accepting comments on a final version, with adoption tentatively scheduled for the spring of 2017, though few people familiar with state water politics are taking odds that it actually will be approved at that time. 

Such leisurely policy timelines are hardly beneficial for California’s imperiled fisheries. In fact, says Peter Drekmeier, the policy director of the Tuolumne River Trust, it’s fairly easy to get more salmon from the Tuolumne—or from the numerous other California streams that have seen once robust salmon populations crash after dams have gone in. You just add more water.

“It’s not a coincidence that returns have been exceptionally low during the drought,” says Drekmeier, a Cal undergraduate alumnus in political science and a former mayor of Palo Alto. “Low water levels correlate with poor salmon returns. Chinook salmon typically return to spawn on two year cycles. A couple years after the extremely wet winter of 1997-1998, when the rivers ran exceptionally high, 18 thousand fish returned to the Tuolumne. And two years after the 1982-1983 winter, which marked one of the wettest years on record, 40 thousand salmon returned.”

Salmon are cold water fish, and higher rivers translate as cooler water. Spawning fish can die if temperatures get too warm—as can their eggs. Higher water also is good for “out-migrating” salmon smolts, which head out to sea in the spring.

“A big water year means more snow melt, so reservoirs have to release water to maintain safe levels,” says Drekmeier. “That creates cold, highly oxygenated and turbid downstream water. The low temperatures and high concentrations of dissolved oxygen keep the young fish healthy, and the turbidity helps them hide from predators. High water also expands the flood plain, which gives the fish additional nooks and crannies for protection. Finally, higher flows transport the smolts downstream quickly, taking them to the ocean where they find abundant cold water, relative safety, and plenty of food.”

Agricultural irrigators and urban water district managers don’t share Drekmeier’s enthusiasm for higher flows down the Tuolumne, which connects with the San Joaquin River. Such water is wasted in their eyes because it cannot be used to grow crops, irrigate golf courses, or fill glasses in restaurants. They propose other methods for bumping up salmon populations: Restoring streamside vegetation to cool downstream flows, and trucking in extra gravel to spawning grounds. (Salmon eggs must be deposited in abundant, clean gravel to assure successful hatching.)

All that’s fine as far as it goes, says Drekmeier, but such rationales attempt to finesse a basic reality: Salmon need abundant, cold, clean water to survive.

“As things stand now, the Tulolumne is better suited for black bass than salmon,” says Drekmeier. “The water is generally far too warm for salmonids. We have water hyacinths, a warm water invasive aquatic plant, clogging the lower reaches of the Tuolumne, the San Joaquin, and much of the (Sacramento-San Joaquin) Delta.”

Court decisions in the late 1980s directed the State Water Resources Control Board to issue water quality and flow standards for the Bay-Delta, revising water rights if necessary. Those decisions resulted in the 1995 Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan, a document establishing flow and water quality standards designed to protect the estuary’s ecosystem and imperiled fish. Ultimately, the plan could effectively determine who and what gets the water flowing from the tributaries of the San Joaquin and Sacramento Rivers (including the Tuolumne) to the Delta. But the plan was never fully implemented, and has been criticized roundly by most stakeholders in the Bay-Delta process, from salmon fishermen to farmers.

“Water quality and distribution issues all play out in the political sphere,” says Holly Doremus, a professor of environmental regulation at the Berkeley School of Law and the co-director of the school’s Center for Law, Energy & the Environment. “Revising water rights is by no means a trivial thing. Any time there is a proposed change in water allocations, there are powerful stakeholders who will fight it. So it’s difficult to determine water requirements, and even more difficult to implement them.”

Also, says Doremus, California’s water rights are enmeshed in the operation of the State Water Project and the federal Central Valley Project, the gigantic government water conveyance systems that deliver water from the Delta to south state cities and farms.

“The Brown administration is promoting the California WaterFix, which would change the intake for the projects from the south Delta where the pumps kill imperiled fish to a point to the north,” Doremus says. “But that’s facing considerable legal opposition from environmentalists because the change could increase the amount of water flowing south. That all makes the determination of water quality and control standards even more difficult.”

The State Water Quality Control Board acknowledged the essential parameters of the Tuolumne’s problem in a 2010 report that stated downstream releases of at least 60 percent of unimpaired (pre-dam) flows would be necessary to restore and protect the Tuolumne’s native fish, Drekmeier says.

But as Doremus notes, vying political constituencies exert their own pressures. In this case, the Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts, which use much of the Tuolumne’s water, decreed that a 60 percent figure was way too high. So in 2012, when the board considered a revised Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan, the proposed figure for the Tuolumne was 35 percent of unimpaired flows from February through June.

“That’s the critical time for salmon,” Drekmeier says. “The eggs are hatching in late winter, and the young fish are trying to get downstream in late spring and early summer. That’s when they need the water, and 35 percent simply isn’t enough.”

Nor were water purveyors pleased by the figure; they felt 35 percent was still too much. So the plan went back to the drawing boards, and in September a revised version was released, one calling for 40 percent of unimpaired flows. Drekmeier would be utterly opposed to the new goals, save that the revised plan includes measures (such as streamside re-vegetation) that, if successful, would reduce releases down the Tuolumne to 30 percent, but would increase flows to 50 percent if fish goals were not met.

That’s still below the 60 percent figure fisheries scientists generally cite as necessary, but Drekmeier thinks it might be sufficient to give the Tuolumne’s salmon a fighting chance.

“The science says 60 percent,” says Drekmeier, “and while this plan doesn’t get us there, it’s far better than earlier proposals. We understand that we’re going to have to work with all parties to bring the salmon back.”

Bill Kier, a fisheries consultant who has worked on state salmon and steelhead issues since the 1950s, says that salmon won’t thrive on the Tuolumne until enough water is released so the channel level rises to reach streamside trees during critical times of the year.

“These salmon evolved with these seasonal little high water channels,” says Kier, who attended Cal. “A tremendous amount of food comes off the trees when the water reaches up to them, food that’s critical for the survival of juvenile salmon. So flows have to be sufficient to reach the treeline. If you reshape the river and replant trees to accommodate a skinnier channel, even if all other things are equal, you’re going to have 25 or 30 years before the trees reach sufficient size to provide sufficient food to young fish. You could lose the entire run during that interim.”

Drekmeier knows that competition for water is fierce in the state and he doesn’t want to dump on any of the constituents, including farmers, vying for a limited resource that gets more precious every drought-plagued year.

“I don’t count myself as one of those people who condemn all agriculture in the Central Valley,” Drekmeier says. “I’ve heard it said that it’s not polite to criticize farmers when you have a full mouth, and to a degree that’s true. But our water is a public trust resource. It belongs to all the people, not just a handful of farmers. And when large corporate farms are making vast profits on public water for export crops such as almonds, that amounts to an unfair subsidy. Our fisheries need and deserve their share. Wild salmon is a food too, one that’s widely enjoyed and is in high demand. Our salmon also support a lot of people economically, from commercial fishermen to charter boat operators, seafood processors and restaurant workers.”

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Almonds or sAlmon?
The “recipe” is filled with inaccuracies, false information and unsubstantiated claims. Most fish “returning” to the Tuolumne are hatchery fish from other river systems, say scientists that actually count and classify them. 40% of smolts that reach the sea are lost to commercial fishermen; new research shows that predation in the river and in the ocean may be the greatest cause of salmon population declines since the late 1990s. Read: http://bit.ly/2dTT3xK and http://bit.ly/2c8bdJa High, clear, coldwater flows out of normal season and into the Delta may be proximate cause of loss of another federally endangered species, Delta Smelt, reducing their plankton food source, making it too easy for predators to hunt them.
Robert Dolezal. Fish need water. Period. Of course other factors affect salmon survival and have for millenia. However, without water fish will not survive, regardless whether they are reared in a hatchery or not. 60% is actually a very low bar. The reason we have observed dramatic declines in fish populations are the cumulative effects of both natural and human-made impacts to fish. Numerous studies are available that show decreased flows result in reduced juvenile salmonid survival. Your arguments are simple red herrings designed to deflect blame and malign science. The articles you cite are opinions, not science.
You’ve got a good point there. The 50 miles of the San Joaquin river that has been largely dry for 5 years can’t really support any kind of fish habitat without seasonal water.
The question isn’t saving fish at all costs, it’s saving which population of fish and at what cost to Endangered Species Act listed species. If the natural species once present in the river have been gone for years and years, it’s nonsense to claim that you’ve restored the extinct population. It becomes entirely nonsensical if you actually harm another listed endangered species in the name of restoring fish that are not even the same population as those that once inhabited the river. Under that theory of logic, let’s restore the redwood forests that once stood down to the shores of San Francisco Bay at Berkeley; bulldoze down the freeways, houses, stores, businesses to bare mineral soil and nurture trees from an entirely different ecosystem to pretend that they are the ancient forests of Berkeley.
You know that is nothing more than so much hyperbole. Nobody is asking to return to a more pristine condition. Obviously, 60% is not anywhere near pristine as 40% would be removed for other purposes. Are you attacking the science or are you attacking the idea of a balance between human and ecosystem needs? It sounds to me like the latter. Fortunately, we have laws that require at least some balancing so we don’t eliminate all vestiges of a natural world. What kind of person wants to live in a world without wild places and wild critters? Why do people like you worship, over anything else, the pursuit of money?
You ask, “Are you attacking the science or are you attacking the idea of a balance between human and ecosystem needs?” Answer: I am attacking false science and I am promoting realistic assessments of the trade-offs of our world as it actually exists rather than a Thoreau-like idealism of a lost world restored. We are raising fish in hatcheries at great cost, adding to that cost many thousands of dollars of scarce and precious water in the name of protection of the species, and seeing few fish return to spawn. You claim to know the cause and promote your prescription; that’s opinion, not science. Science has theories and tests them with experiments or observes and collects natural data (e.g. http://www.modbee.com/news/local/news-columns-blogs/jeff-jardine/article...). You ignore that science and promote your prescription. It’s indeed fortunate, “we have laws that require at least some balancing so we don’t eliminate all vestiges of a natural world.” We also have laws against fraud and we have the constitutional right — at least for now — to fairly expose charlatans who make false promises that they can’t back up with facts, science, social or environmental justice, or even simple reason. You define yourself more than me when you default to a cheap attempt to label those who see a larger and more realistic picture with your personal slurs. Perhaps you should retake that lower-division branding class. You were clearly texting when you should have been listening to the lecture.
There’s no denying though that more water is needed. The anti-increased flows side is not saying how much water should be allowed. As far as I know 0% would be fine with them. I hope to stand corrected.
One thing to understand, while the article and the pro-increased flows side talk mainly about salmon, they are really a ‘key-stone’ species that holds up other species of plants and animals. The Bay Institute has a new report detailing the negative impacts of too little water flowing into the SF Bay Estuary; all the way out to the Farallones Islands. It’s not just salmon, it’s an entire ecosystem. And all for ever-expanding nut tree, and other water-intensive crops, cultivation in the Central Valley. Another recent report has shown that new, previously un-irrigated land is being increasingly planted with nut trees; this during a drought. And it’s fed by loose bank lending; another mini-bubble. It’s out of balance.
Chris, you say, “Another recent report has shown that new, previously un-irrigated land is being increasingly planted with nut trees.” Agriculture is responding to having their surface water supply cut off and decreased acreage as any other sensible asset manager would; they are replacing large acreage of low-value crops — alfalfa, tomatoes, lettuce — with much smaller acreage of high-value crops — nuts, avocados, citrus. They are also able, with orchard crops, to employ greater subterranean drip irrigation instead of wasteful overhead spray. That cuts the water use to 30% or less of the original crop. It’s difficult to hold a conversation with those who simply have never planted, never harvested, but expect to continue eating farm-to-fork healthy and nutritious food while uprooting the entire ecosystem of farm operations by managing and judging businesses without the slightest knowledge, skills or understanding of all the trade-offs involved.
In a drought situation do you want to plant trees that can’t be fallowed during a dry year? It doesn’t make sense. Especially using water-intensive crops. Sorry. I own a number of vineyards east of Lodi. I understand that you don’t want to “hold a conversation” with ignorant people. We can to prevent them from posting here. Maybe a questionnaire?
Chris: Well, it works like this, for nut and orchard farmers as well as for avocados, etc. For the first five years of life after transplanting, orchard crops only use a tiny fraction of the water they will need as adult trees. The historic (but, as we now learn, not the prehistoric) pattern for droughts in California is that they have a finite life, usually less than five years. These farmers are making a calculated gamble that the drought will end and surface water deliveries will recommence before the trees need permanent irrigation at higher levels. Avocado farmers made a similar gamble in 2012 and 2013 by stumping (cutting off at the ground) their mature producing trees, knowing they could give them sparse water and they would grow back from the stump. However, the drought lasted longer than they thought and now our nation suffers a complete lack of avocados, and they will probably permanently lose their trees. I hope that answers your question; it certainly also applies to vine crops. I don’t think that those expressing concerns and views here are ignorant. I think that there’s valuable educational potential for learning something they don’t understand fully or accurately. The distortion of facts has been widely reported and repeated; they are being exposed to scientific reality on agricultural matters and on the “water for fish” issue for the first time. These are complex, nuanced and challenging policy matters. Education and dialog is valuable. That’s why I’ve taken the time to respond. Thanks for your comments.
Thanks. I appreciate the information. Unfortunately, with climate change it sounds like it’s “all bets off” on how long droughts will last. I pity the family farmer but not those farms owned by big corporations, pension funds, etc. When there is five times more water on paper in the form of water rights than there is available it’s time to scale back agriculture in the Central Valley. Municipalities will always trump a relatively small industry like agriculture. And no one wants the natural systems that depend on freshwater flows to fall apart.
Dams are needed to support human overpopulation; so what? Supporting human overpopulation is no excuse or even logical reason to destroy ecosystems and their species with dams.
I’ll take that deal. Bulldoze the freeway in and other crap in Berkeley to restore the redwood forest, and take down the dam(n)s to restore the river and its fish. Sounds like a win/win to me.