The Central Valley Project Improvement Act, a landmark federal law signed by President George H.W. Bush in the fall of 1992, set a goal of doubling the Bay-Delta watershed's Chinook salmon runs from 495,000 to 990,000 wild adult fish by 2002.
The legislation also mandated the doubling by 2002 of other anadromous fish species — fish ascending rivers from the sea to spawn — including Central Valley steelhead, white sturgeon, green sturgeon, striped bass and American shad.
The legislation also made fish and wildlife a purpose of the Central Valley Project for the first time. The CVPIA's Anadromous Fish Restoration Program was supposed to dedicate 800,000 acre-feet of CVP water every year to environmental protection.
Unfortunately, a decade after the law's deadline, the salmon fishery continues to struggle to rebound, largely due to ineffective enforcement by federal and state agencies and continued excessive pumping of fresh water from the Bay-Delta, primarily for corporate agribusiness interests in the San Joaquin Valley.
According to a new salmon index released by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Golden Gate Salmon Association, the Central Valley Chinook salmon fishery has suffered a dramatic collapse over the past decade, now standing at only 13 percent of the population goal required by federal law.
The closest the government came to meeting the salmon doubling goal was in 2002, when the index peaked at 64.33 percent of doubling. Last year, in spite of favorable ocean forage conditions, the index was only about 13 percent of the salmon doubling goal.
The index was released following the closure of California's ocean salmon fishing season on Nov. 11, and the 20th anniversary of the CVPIA.
The NRDC and GGSA analysis, published in the Salmon Doubling Index, reveals a steady decline in Central Valley Chinook salmon from 2003 through 2010, at which point it reached a record low of 7 percent.
While the state and federal governments claimed that ocean conditions prompted the decline, fishing and environmental groups pointed to increased water diversions as a significant cause of this decline. Between 2000 and 2006, freshwater pumping from the Bay-Delta increased 20 percent in comparison to 1975-2000. The record water export year was 2005 until a new record was set in 2011 under the Brown and Obama administrations.
The annual export total via the state and federal Delta pumps was 6,520,000 acre-feet of water in 2011 — 217,000 acre-feet more than the previous record of 6,303,000 acre-feet set in 2005.
Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez), the House author of the Central Valley Project Improvement Act, strongly urged the federal government to comply with the law by restoring California salmon.
"Despite indefensible foot-dragging and countless lawsuits, salmon restoration has remained the linchpin of federal water policy in California for 20 years," said Rep. Miller. "California salmon support businesses and communities up and down the West coast, and it's long past time for the federal agencies to take their responsibility to our state's wild fisheries seriously. The federal government must restore California's iconic salmon runs to health: that's the law."
"Salmon are the canary in the coal mine for the Bay-Delta economy and ecosystem," said Barry Nelson, senior policy analyst with NRDC's Water Program. "California salmon, the fishing industry and the Bay-Delta ecosystem all need adequate water flows to maintain their health over the long-term. The Department of the Interior and the State of California need to dramatically step-up efforts to protect the San Francisco Bay-Delta ecosystem and restore salmon populations."
In 2008, in response to a lawsuit brought by NRDC, Earthjustice and the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, stronger federal court-ordered protections went into effect for salmon and other native fish, reducing Delta water pumping.
In 2011, there was a modest rebound of wild adult Chinook salmon, directly correlating to this reduction in pumping. Chinook salmon have a three-year life cycle.
As a result, the benefits of stronger protections in 2008 are reflected in the numbers of adult fish that returned to spawn in 2011, the groups said. Early federal agency projections predict stronger numbers for this year's salmon run, now currently underway. Nevertheless, the salmon index for 2012 will likely remain dramatically short of meeting state and federal goals.
Victor Gonella, president of the Golden Gate Salmon Association, emphasized, "Our salmon runs are essential to California's natural heritage, to fishing families and to an industry that reaches from the fishing dock to your dinner table. Restoring healthy salmon runs means healthy local food, healthy communities and a healthy economy."
Gonella said if current laws were enforced and the mandated restoration goal was achieved, the salmon fishing industry would provide a large contribution to the California economy. A fully restored California salmon industry would provide $5.6 billion in economic activity annually and tens of thousands of jobs from Santa Barbara to northern Oregon. ¥¥