California DFW: 'nearly all' Sacramento River winter chinook salmon juveniles could perish this year

Winter chinook salmon struggle to survive in relatively warm water conditions below Keswick Dam. Photo courtesy of San Francisco Baykeeeper. | 

By Dan Bacher | 

On July 6, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife published an update on the status of federally and state-protected winter-run Chinook salmon that warns “it is possible that nearly all in-river juveniles will not survive this season” as the cold water pool in Lake Shasta is depleted earlier than modeled because of increased downstream water deliveries during the hot weather.

The winter-run Chinook salmon is listed as “endangered” under both the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the California Endangered Species Act (CESA). The once abundant sub-species of salmon declined from a high of 117,000 in 1969 to 200 fish in 1991.

Previous reports from the CDFW documented a large mass of winter-run Chinook in stressed condition below Keswick Dam, including adult fish dying before spawning in the relatively warm water conditions.

The update states:

“7-6-21- Continued hot weather above 100 degrees for periods in late May, early June and past two weeks continuously will lead to depletion of cold water pool in Shasta Lake sooner than modeled earlier in season.  This hot weather is leading to more demand downstream for water (flows from Keswick from 8,500 to 9,250 on July 4th).  Previously modeled season-long cold water availability scenarios used steady flows in the 7500 cfs range from Keswick.  Those earlier scenarios had very high expected juvenile mortality due to warm water later in Aug-Oct that would be lethal to incubating eggs and alevins in the gravel.  This persistent heat dome over the West Coast will likely result in earlier loss of ability to provide cool water and subsequently it is possible that nearly all in-river juveniles will not survive this season.  Counts of carcasses continue to indicate a large run of winter-run this year. Unspawned fresh females for the season are 71 with an overall percentage of 12.3% of all fresh females this season were unspawned.”

The link to the update is here:

While the CDFW attributes the potential loss of nearly all juvenile winter-run chinook this year to the hot weather and the “persistent heat dome,” representatives of fishing and environmental groups attribute the dismal situation of the winter Chinook to state and federal mismanagement of water. 

“This is EXACTLY what we warned the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) about when we spoke on the precarious condition of Sacramento River winter-run at their meeting in April,” said Mike Conroy, Executive Director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations. “While I appreciate the deflection and trying to blame the weather - this is most assuredly NOT about hot weather.”

“Our government officials have generally been failing to provide adequate conditions (or even meet their own plan) since spawning began.  This is negligence and incompetence by those in power,” stated Conroy. 

Likewise, John McManus, President of the Golden State Salmon Association, blamed government inaction for this looming disaster.

"Californians should be alerted that the extinction of a native salmon run is underway right now as a result of government inaction to stop it,” said McManus. “State and federal water managers have apparently decided it's politically inconvenient to reroute short water supplies to prevent extinction if it means a few less acres of crops.”

“We're losing winter run salmon right now and the fall run salmon that supply the sport and commercial fisheries will be decimated too.  Californians who care about the environment need to hold government officials accountable for allowing the loss of the state's natural resources on their watch,” said McManus.

Despite the winter run’s protected status under state and federal laws, the Sacramento River mainstem winter run Chinook salmon escapement (1970-1974 v. 2015-2019) has declined 91.0 percent, according to Bill Jennings, Executive Director and Chairman of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance (CSPA).   

And despite the winter run’s protected status, the State Water Resources Control Board continues to approve the delivery of millions of acre feet of water to state and federal water contractors during a record drought. 

On June 30, a coalition of Delta-based groups sent a formal Petition for Reconsideration to the State Water Board opposing the Board’s June 1 order to relax water quality standards for Delta operations of the Central Valley Project and the State Water Project. The Temporary Urgency Change Order (TUCO) was issued by the Water Board on June 1, 2021.

The coalition’s petition shows that 4.5 million acre-feet of water will be delivered to state and federal water contractors (including about 10 percent for Central Valley wildlife refuges), based on Water Board information. The Board’s action will only add another 3 percent in water savings to put toward protecting salmon and the Delta, “a miserly allocation,” said the petition for reconsideration.     

Background: Massive amounts of water exported from the Delta from 2010 to 2020

The poor water management by the Department of Water Resources and the Bureau of Reclamation that has exacerbated drought water conditions, resulting in the deaths of many winter-run Chinook salmon below Keswick Dam before spawning this year so far, 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:

Due to the projected poor water conditions in the Sacramento and its tributaries this year, all of the juvenile chinook salmon (smolts) from state fish hatcheries are getting truck rides to saltwater this spring to increase their survival.

Over 16.8 million young chinook salmon from four Central Valley hatcheries — the Feather River, Nimbus, Mokelumne and Merced facilities — will have been trucked to release sites around San Pablo and San Francisco bays and in Half Moon and Monterey bays by early June, according to the CDFW.

“If you don’t conserve enough water to maintain carryover storage to enable successful spawning and outmigration of salmon in a drought, then the CDFW has to truck the fish downriver to the bay so that fish are able to survive,” said Bill Jennings, chairman and executive director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance (CSPA):

Below is the chart with the annual exports and the 15-year average. All of the figures are in million acre-feet:


Annual Export

15 Year Average


































For more information, see:…

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