Improving Water Flows and Providing Adequate Water Temperatures for Salmon

Golden State Salmon Association (GSSA) develops and implements innovative strategies for restoring California salmon and advocates for strong State and U.S. federal policies. At the heart of these policies is a mission to ensure California salmon continue to provide economic, recreational, commercial, conservation, cultural and health benefits for people and the environment. GSSA works closely with agencies, nonprofit organizations, elected officials, policymakers, businesses and more for sound public salmon policies, mobilizes individuals to take action against water mismanagement, and uses strategic litigation to defend salmon and the salmon industry from legislative attacks.

Improving Cold Water Flows

We always see a resurgence in salmon runs two years after a wet winter/spring because baby salmon survive at much higher rates during big runoff years, proof positive that lack of river flows is the main problem for salmon.  Reservoirs can be operated (as they are on the Columbia and Snake Rivers in Idaho, Oregon and Washington) to release adequate water in the spring to aid the downstream migration of the baby salmon.  Not only do we usually fail to do this in California, but when these spring water releases are most needed (in drought years), water managers are least inclined to share water for salmon.

Dams capture the natural runoff and block river and stream flows that salmon have evolved to depend on.  In very wet years there’s enough rain and snow runoff coming down streams below dams to mimic the pre-dam condition, but not so in dry years. That’s when it’s needed most. To date, federal requirements designed to protect Central Valley salmon have always come up short by not including such a requirement. 

Salmon don’t need high flows all the time, only during part of their life cycle.

Water distribution in the Central Valley is driven partly by the needs of federally protected species and partly by the demands of water contractors who take water from state and federal water projects.  These needs often run counter to each other.  For the most part, flows and temperatures are only managed for fish when federal law requires it.  For instance, the 2009 salmon biop required a portion of the upper Sacramento River to be maintained at no more than 56 degrees from June 1 through October 1 to aid spawning winter run salmon.  But too often, fall run salmon, which spawn from September through December, spawn in flows above 56 degrees, which kills their eggs.  Similarly, reservoir releases have to be maintained at a steady level during that same June 1 through October 1 time period so that winter run redds (salmon egg nests) remain inundated. Too often, come October 1, reservoir releases are cut drastically.  This often leads to dewatering of fall run redds and massive loss of fertilized eggs.