Anatomy of a Disaster – Mismanagement Strikes Central Valley Spring-Run

Before Central Valley rivers were plugged by hundreds of dams, Central Valley spring-run Chinook salmon might have outnumbered fall run as one of the West Coast’s great salmon runs. Perhaps 1 million spring-run returned to Valley rivers each year. Those springers, often 4-year-olds, were famous in the fishing community for their huge size and flavor. That size also helped springers hunker down in Central Valley rivers from the spring, when they migrated upstream, to the fall, when they spawned.  

Dams cut off springers from most of their foothill spawning habitat, leading to a long decline.  Water diversions made it even harder for remaining spring-run to survive.

Several years ago, the future was looking brighter for Central Valley spring-run Chinook salmon.  After disastrously low returns in the early 1990s, spring-run numbers began to recover.  The removal of a few key fish barriers let more springers reach their spawning grounds on relatively pristine Butte Creek. Butte, along with Mill and Deer Creeks, were seen as key Sacramento Valley refuges for the run, which is listed as threatened under the federal ESA.   

In the spring of 2021, more than 20,000 spring-run returned to Butte Creek. Valley wide, 28,238 spring-run returned to Central Valley streams – the second largest run in the past 60 years.  Since then, however, the spring-run has faced one setback after another.

Over the summer of 2021, a massive fish kill meant that 91% of the spring-run in Butte Creek died before they spawned – in a huge blow to the run.  

Fish counts reached a frighting level this year. Final numbers for 2023 returns have not yet been released by the agencies, but GSSA learned several months ago that only 200 spring-run returned to Butte Creek this year.  Even worse, fewer than 50 returned to Mill and Deer Creek combined.  Nearby Antelope saw no spring-run returns. Clear Creek received just 15 fish.  500-800 returned on the Feather River.  The vast majority of those Feather River fish are not wild – but returns to the Oroville hatchery.   

So – what has caused this sudden downturn for springers? Certainly, drought and climate change have played a role. But most of this disaster can be laid at the feet of water managers – particularly PG&E, the Bureau of Reclamation and the Department of Water Resources. And the disaster is continuing.     

First, in August, a PG&E canal failed, dumping tons of rust colored sediment into Butte Creek.  That led to another Butte Creek fish kill. We haven’t seen official reports yet, but it’s clear that the vast majority of this year’s paltry spring-run return to Butte Creek died before spawning.  And that sediment may smother the redds of the few spring-run that survived the spill. PG&E runs Battle Creek, with their complex hydropower system. So, it sure looks like the company failed to protect this key salmon stream.  

Second, acoustic tagging experiments in recent years have shown that juvenile springers thrive in wild Mill Creek when flows are adequate – only to die when they outmigrate and hit low flows in the main stem of the Sacramento River. The cause is clear. The Bureau of Reclamation’s operation of Shasta Dam does not leave enough water in the river in the spring to allow springers – and other salmon runs – to survive their outmigration. Despite this well-known relationship between higher spring river flows and higher juvenile salmon survival, there is no State Water Board or federal ESA spring outmigration requirement to protect salmon. In fact, projects like the proposed Sites Reservoir could divert even more life-giving spring flows from the Sacramento River. This failure is related to the larger State Board failure to update outdated Bay-Delta flow standards that date back to 1995.  

Third, the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) has long operated Oroville Dam in a manner that harms springers. Back in 2009, DWR acknowledged this, when they reached a settlement regarding their expired Federal Energy Regulatory Commission license calling for improved flow conditions, restored habitat and retrofitting the antiquated design of the Thermalito Afterbay, which generates hot river temperatures that render half of the spawning habitat on the Feather River unusable by spring and fall run salmon in many years. Yet 24 years later, DWR has still not implemented the improvements called for by this settlement. Instead, they are stillwaiting for FERC to issue a new license for Oroville. Meanwhile, springers continue to suffer.  

DWR has also rejected one of GSSA’s key salmon rebuilding recommendations – to release more cold water down the Feather River’s low flow channel to improve conditions for spawning salmon this fall. This would not cost DWR a drop of water – although it would modestly reduce DWR’s hydropower production. Fortunately, the past wet winter means that California has abundant hydropower production this year. GSSA thinks saving springers on the brink of extinction is worth a small reduction in hydropower in a year with plenty.  Apparently, under Governor Newsom, DWR sees this differently.  

Fourth, DWR and PG&E dams prevent spring-run from reaching their historic habitat on the Feather River and Battle Creek. PG&E has stated that they no longer want to maintain and operate the dams on Battle Creek – making dam removal the obvious solution. DWR is exploring the potential to return springers to the Feather River through a “truck and haul” program that would carry adult springers upstream and juveniles downstream past a series of dams. Both could provide key cold water for spring-run fish in dry years.  Yet DWR and PG&E have been slow walking these efforts to protect spring-run salmon for twenty years.  

Given all of this, it now appears likely that NMFS will “uplist” the spring-run under the ESA – changing its status from threatened to endangered. That should result in more restrictions on water projects. But it will also likely result in more restrictions on commercial and recreational fishing – when fall run numbers rebound to a level that will support harvest.  

In the past few days, the fish agencies announced that they are beginning an emergency program to capture juvenile springers from Butte and Deer creeks.  Those fish will be taken to facilities at U.C. Davis and raised to adulthood, where they will be artificially spawned to raise the next generation of spring-run. This last-ditch California condor style captive breeding program has been tried with Central Valley winter run salmon.  

Crashing fish counts, the ESA uplisting and the juvenile capture program are all signs of the systematic failure of agencies to meet their legal obligations to protect the spring-run.  

So – what can turn this around? GSSA recommends two key steps as top priorities:

First, Governor Newsom should let the State Water Board do their job by updating and implementing new flow and temperature requirements for the Bay-Delta system. In particular, these standards should include improved spring outmigration flows for all Central Valley salmon. Governor Newsom replaced Governor Brown’s effective chair of the State Water Board, urged the Board to delay and supported the dramatically inadequate water user “voluntary agreement” proposal – from which GSSA, environmentalists, tribes and environmental justice advocates have been excluded.  The Board recently released a staff report to move this effort forward. That’s the first encouraging sign that the Board’s paralysis may end – but we’re still more than a year from the finish line.  

Second, the National Marine Fisheries Service should finalize a new salmon biological opinion for the Central Valley Project and State Water Project to replace the illegal and scientifically-baseless 2019 biological opinion issued by the Trump Administration. That 2019 “BO” weakened temperature and flow protections – and literally authorized the Bureau of Reclamation to cause the extinction of salmon. Unfortunately, the Bureau is still largely implementing that extinction plan.  You can see the results in the decline of spring-run – as well as the fall run, which would benefit indirectly from stronger protections for ESA listed salmon runs. 

Here are a few more needed actions.  

  • DWR should revisit their decision to reject GSSA’s recommendation to improve Feather River flows and temperatures for salmon.  This action could improve conditions with the turn of a dial.
  • The State Board should set permanent flow requirements to protect salmon on Mill, Deer and Antelope creeks.  The Board set emergency flow levels during the recent drought – but those protections ended when wet weather returned last winter.  Despite the importance of these creeks for spring-run, the State Board has set no permanent requirements to ensure that spring-run salmon survive.
  • State and federal agencies – and PG&E – must get dam removal and fish reintroduction efforts moving on the Feather River and Battle Creek.   Continued gridlock is not acceptable.