In October US Interior Secretary David Bernhardt released a new set of relaxed rules that would strip protections from salmon and other Central Valley species and allow almost unfettered water diversions from the Delta. GSSA is strongly opposed and joined a legal challenge with the filing of a 60 day Notice of Intent to sue letter which is required under the federal Endangered Species Act. New federal rules allowing seizure and diversion of even more northern California water to those growing almonds and pistachios in the western San Joaquin desert were released by US Interior Secretary David Bernhardt in October. The new rules await a final review before expected implementation in the spring of 2020. GSSA and allies will seek a court order stopping the new rules from taking effect.
The Bernhardt green light to boost water diversions comes after the National Marine Fisheries Service submitted its review in early July and found that boosting diversions would illegally harm a number of federally protected species, including winter and spring run salmon. The Trump administration refused to allow these findings to be published and instead assembled a group that rewrote NMFS’s report to find that increasing water diversions wouldn’t harm salmon or other wildlife.
Among other insults, the new Trump rules allow water managers to basically drain much of Lake Shasta and the upper Sacramento River and kill off all of the salmon for three years before they have to take notice. Then it allows water operators to discuss what to do about it for several more years before having to take corrective action, after which time runs of salmon could go extinct. As
As a recent article in East Bay Express put it:
“Of particular concern is a brief clause on page 801 of the National Marine Fisheries Service report that allows annihilation of the winter-run Chinook for three consecutive years before limits on water transfers would be imposed. Because most Chinook salmon spawn and naturally die at three years of age, annihilation of all newborns in three consecutive years would effectively wipe out the species.
Specifically, the document states that officials need not reconsider the new water limits unless “two consecutive years of egg-to-fry survival of less than 15 percent [are] followed by a third year of less than 21 percent.” In other words, the Bureau of Reclamation is permitted to safeguard so little of the cold water outflow from Shasta Dam — essential for spawning salmon — so that as much as 100 percent of offspring could die for three years in a row before officials would have to reconsider their regulations.”
The rules being replaced weren’t protective enough to keep water managers from annihilating more than 90 percent of the fall and winter run salmon in the upper Sacramento Basin during the height of the last drought. The new rules are considerably less protective. NMFS’ recovery plan finds that significant increases in survival through the Delta – not further reductions in survival — is necessary for winter run Chinook salmon and other salmon species to recover (see page 127 of the final recovery plan). But most damningly, NMFS has repeatedly found that dramatically increased protections below Shasta Dam are needed to protect salmon, and yet the final biological opinion fails to provide the protections that NMFS has previously found was needed.
- NMFS Biop, page 707).
The new rules also anticipate reduced survival of salmon migrating through the Delta, including for winter-run Chinook salmon (NMFS Biop, page 382), spring-run Chinook salmon (pages 382-83), fall-run Chinook salmon ( page 383), and late-fall run Chinook salmon (page 383-84).
The modeling in the NMFS biological opinion shows that it is expected to increase the number of juvenile salmon that are sucked into the Delta pumps, including winter-run Chinook salmon (page 489), spring-run Chinook salmon (nearly doubling take in most years, see page 500), and steelhead (page 509-510).
Overall, the biological opinion admits that, “Based on the analyses of expected effects of the proposed action to ESA-listed CV (Central Valley) Chinook salmon populations, reductions in the survival and productivity of all CV Chinook salmon populations (including fall-run and late fall-run Chinook salmon) are expected to occur throughout the proposed action, and the greatest effects will occur during the drier water years when effects of the proposed action are most pronounced.” (NMFS biop, page 683)
Down in the Delta there’s been agreement for over a decade among state and federal fishery experts that once you crank up the massive diversion pumps you’ll pull a baby salmon off their migratory route to the ocean, and reroute them into the interior Delta where they die. Further, for every baby salmon that survives being dragged across the interior delta and ends up sucked into the Delta pumps, you know that another seven to nine died along the way.
The new Bernhardt/Trump rules say, no need to worry yourself over dead baby salmon in the interior delta that no one ever sees, from now on we only count the baby salmon that show up at the pumps. If too many do, we’ll consider cutting back on the pumping. We’ll consider it…. but under the new rules, they leave optional actually cutting back. And of course untold multiple more baby salmon will now go unaccounted for and be lost in the interior delta with no commensurate restriction on the increased pumping that’s largely to blame for pulling them off their migratory route.
The new Trump rules also greatly reduce constraints on how high and for how long the Delta pumps will be run at full speed. When the pumps are cranked, the local rivers flow backwards instead of to the sea and all small fish get sucked into the pumps.
Here’s the chapter and verse (the language involves familiarity with technical details) of how excessive water diversion at the pumps will be allowed:
- Allows Delta pumping that results in Old and Middle River flows that are more negative than -5,000 cfs during storm events between January and June, with no limit on the magnitude, duration, or frequency of such OMR storm “flexibility” events (Overriding RPA Action IV.2.3 in the 2009 NMFS biop and RPA Actions 1, 2, and 3 in the 2008 FWS biop);
- Eliminates the San Joaquin River inflow: export ratio, which regulates Delta pumping during the months of April and May, in the NMFS biological opinion (NMFS RPA Action IV.2.1);
Annual meetings between the water operation managers and the fishery specialists early in the year to map out how much water to move and when in order to minimize the harm to the salmon will be a thing of the past under the new rules.
In addition, calculating how much cold water to leave in Shasta throughout the year, especially in the fall when the agriculture growing season is over, is also critically important to having enough cold water to avoid extinction. The requirements for minimal lake level in Shasta at the end of the year (put in place just in case there’s no rain the following year) are now gone. Totally gone.
Then there’s the issue of enforcement. The prior rules left it up to the expert federal fish and wildlife agencies, the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service, to patrol and enforce the old rules. That’s gone. In its place the big federal water agency that runs the dams, canals, pumps and pipelines is on the honor system to police itself. We’ve seen this movie before. It never turns out well.