State and federal agencies are killing thousands of endangered steelhead and salmon in Delta pumps

Map of Delta and state and federal water project pumping facilities courtesy of DWR. | 

By Dan Bacher |

The State Water Project (SWP) and Central Valley Project (CVP) Delta “death pumps” have been the biggest killers of salmon, steelhead, Sacramento splittail and a multitude of other fish species in California for many decades, as I have documented in hundreds of articles in an array of publications.

In the latest episode in this outrageous saga, a coalition of fishing and conservation groups, including the Golden Gate Salmon Association, San Francisco Baykeeper, Bay Institute and Defenders of Wildlife, urged the state and federal water agencies to “take immediate action” to stop the unauthorized killing of thousands of Chinook Salmon and Steelhead at the State and Federal water export pumps in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. 

Both winter-run Chinook salmon and Central Valley steelhead are protected under the Federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). Central Valley winter-run Chinook Salmon is also protected under the California Endangered Species Act (CESA).

The coalition reported that this is the second time in 2024 the coalition has responded to an increase in killing of legally protected fish at the pumps of the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project (Projects or Water Projects).

While the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has called for significant reductions in the Projects’ Delta water pumping, the California’s Department of Water Resources (DWR) and the federal Bureau of Reclamation that own and operate the Projects ignored these recommendations and continued to export water at rates that killed thousands of imperiled fishes, the groups said.

“Indeed, over the past week, DWR and Reclamation further increased pumping – as a result, significantly increasing take of winter-run Chinook Salmon at the pumps,” the groups said in a statement. “As a result, the Water Projects have exceeded the legal limits for killing both Central Valley Steelhead and winter-run Chinook Salmon established under the ESA by NMFS.”

State Water Project pumping accounts for 80% of the water exported from the Delta at this time according to the groups.

The annual ESA take limit for winter-run Chinook Salmon is 1,776 fish. As of March 25, 2024, an estimated 3,030 winter-run had been killed at the pumps – not counting the much larger number of fish that likely died after being drawn by pumping into inhospitable parts of the Delta, the groups said.

Since December 1, 2023, an estimated 2,919 naturally spawned Central Valley Steelhead have also been killed by the Water Projects. The maximum allowable ESA Steelhead take is 1,571 as a three-year rolling average or 2,760 in any single year. The numbers show that the Water Projects are in violation of both limits.

“2023 saw some of the lowest numbers of spawning salmon ever in the Sacramento River,” the groups said. “Winter-run Chinook numbers are dangerously low. The ESA listed spring-run Chinook Salmon is approaching extinction in the wild.” 

The spring-run and fall-run Chinook Salmon juveniles migrate through the Delta after the winter-run moves through. The groups noted that “irresponsibly high water pumping rates also represent a threat to spring-run and fall-run Chinook Salmon — and to tens of thousands of California and coastal Oregon Salmon fishing jobs.”  

The groups said the CVP and SWP are still largely operating under rules written in the NMFS 2019 Biological Opinion, under which the Trump Administration gutted previous protections. The new rules ignored both legal requirements and the best available science. Federal agencies are in the process of developing new rules, but the Trump-era rules remain largely in place, the groups noted.

In response to this unauthorized killing of legally protected fish, Scott Artis, executive director of the Golden State Salmon Association, stated: “The disastrously low numbers of spawning salmon in 2023 were directly caused by the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project. It’s beyond infuriating that, once again, these agencies are killing unauthorized numbers of legally protected salmon and steelhead and ignoring the regulatory agencies.”

“Even as the number of salmon they were killing at the Delta pumps surged, they actually increased pumping. It sure looks like they don’t care if they cause salmon extinctions and destroy California’s salmon fishing jobs and all the families that rely on the fishery. Salmon fishing in 2023 was shut down because the water projects killed nearly all of the baby salmon born in the Sacramento River in 2020. Instead of doing the same thing this year, they should rebuild our salmon runs. Governor Newsom, please stop this,” argued Artis.

“After record setting rainfall in 2023 and over 100% snowpack this year, now is the ideal time to provide conditions that allow these declining fish populations to rebound,” pointed out Ashley Overhouse, water policy advisor with Defenders of Wildlife. “It is disappointing that our agencies are not taking advantage of their ability to improve the conditions in the Delta, which is on the brink of collapse.”

Jon Rosenfield, Ph.D., Science Director for San Francisco Baykeeper said: “In 2019, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) set limits for the number of endangered winter-run Chinook Salmon and Steelhead the California Department of Water Resources and federal Bureau of Reclamation could kill while still avoiding extinction of these species. Those requirements were not protective enough.”

“So, to see the state and federal water agencies exceed their take limits and continue business-as-usual water exports is like witnessing extinction in real time. It demonstrates the official negligence and lawlessness that caused these fish, and many others, to become endangered in the first place,” concluded Rosenfield. 

Background: salmon, steelhead and Delta Smelt continue on path to extinction 

On April 10, the Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC) voted unanimously for a complete closure of recreational and commercial salmon seasons on the California Coast for the second year in a row, based on a CDFW recommendation.

The closure — for the second year in a row — is due to the collapse of Sacramento River fall-run Chinook and Klamath River fall-run Chinook salmon salmon populations. 

The CDFW also recommended a complete in-river closures statewide, but that won't be official until the California Fish and Game Commission approves it in May.

The 2024 stock abundance forecast for Sacramento River Fall Chinook, often the most abundant stock in the ocean fishery, is only 213,600 adults. Meanwhile, abundance of Klamath River Fall Chinook is forecast at 180,700 adults. “These abundance forecasts are well below average,” according to the CDFW.

Endangered Sacramento River spring and winter-run Chinook also continue their march towards extinction. The spawning escapement of Sacramento River Spring Chinooks (SRSC) in 2023 totaled 1,479 fish (jacks and adults), with an estimated return of 106 to upper Sacramento River tributaries and the remaining 1,391 fish returning to the Feather River Hatchery.

The return to Butte Creek of just 100 fish was the lowest ever. In 2021, an estimated 19,773 out of the more than 21,580 fish total that returned to spawn in the Butte County stream perished before spawning

Nor did the winter run, listed under the state and federal Endangered Species Act, do well. Spawner escapement of endangered Sacramento River Winter Chinook (SRWC) in 2023 was estimated to be 2,447 adults and 54 jacks, according to PFMC data.

A group of us, including the late conservationist and Fish Sniffer magazine publisher Hal Bonslett, successfully pushed the state and federal governments to list the winter run under the state and federal Endangered Species Acts starting in 1990-91 because we were so alarmed that the fish population had crashed to 2,000 fish.

Then in 1992 the run declined to less than 200 fish. Even after Shasta Dam was built, the winter run escapement to the Sacramento River was 117,000 in 1969!

Now we are back to approximately the same low number of winter-run Chinooks that spurred us to push for the listing of the fish as endangered under state and federal law over 30 years ago.  

Even more chilling, for the sixth year in a row, zero Delta Smelt were collected in the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Fall Midwater Trawl (FMWT) Survey in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta from September through December 2023.

Once the most abundant species in the entire estuary, the Delta Smelt has declined to the point that it has become functionally extinct in the wild. The 2 to 3 inch fish, found only in the Delta, is an “indicator species” that shows the relative health of the San Francisco Bay/Delta ecosystem.

Meanwhile, the other pelagic species collected in the survey — striped bass, Longfin Smelt, Sacramento Splittail and threadfin shad — continued their dramatic decline since 1967 when the State Water Project went into effect. Only the American shad shows a less precipitous decline.

The graphs in the CDFW memo graphically illustrate how dramatic the declines in fish populations have been over the years:…  

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