Proposed legislation places salmon and other drought-impacted wildlife in even more danger

Chinook salmon are incredible creatures. After spending almost three years at sea, they make their way back to the rivers in which they hatched to spawn the next generation. In California each year, Chinook salmon swim beneath the Golden Gate Bridge and into the San Francisco Bay, making their way towards their spawning grounds on the Sacramento River.

Over the past few years, however, the salmon made this perilous journey inland only to have the next generation killed because the river wasn’t managed properly. Indeed, weakening of environmental protections over the last two years has killed 95 to 98 percent of the endangered winter-run Chinook salmon population in the Sacramento River. If this third year is managed so that there are similar impacts, the wild population of the winter-run will be likely wiped out for good.

Salmon aren’t the only animals that have suffered from drought and the relaxation of environmental standards in the San Francisco Bay-Delta. Endangered southern resident orcas rely on Chinook salmon for over 80 percent of their diet. So, when salmon populations crash, the whales also suffer.

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orca and calf, © NOAA

With winter-run Chinook salmon hanging on by a thread, any proposed legislation in Congress must result in water solutions that help salmon and the other declining fish and wildlife species instead of making it even more difficult for these species to survive. On January 21, 2016, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) released the latest draft of proposed legislation to address California’s deep-seated water management problems – problems that have intensified during the state’s historic four-year drought. The bill is an important first step in efforts to address these difficult issues, and it includes helpful proposed investments in water recycling and other sustainable water management tools.

Bay Delta, © Vlad and Marina Butsky

However, we are still deeply concerned about this draft legislation. If enacted as written, this bill will weaken crucial, scientifically sound legal limits on pumping operations in the San Francisco Bay-Delta estuary. Those limits, which were created under the Endangered Species Act, are there to protect salmon and other threatened and endangered fish and wildlife. Winter-run Chinook salmon and other species may not survive any additional weakening of protections.

The scientific community overwhelmingly agrees that we must let more fresh water flow through the Bay-Delta estuary to help Chinook salmon and other species reproduce, survive and migrate. Unfortunately, the proposals to manage the Bay Delta system in Senator Feinstein’s draft bill move in the opposite direction, and threaten to make conditions even worse for species that have been pushed to the brink by drought.

California simply can’t afford to weaken these standards further if we are going to sustain healthy salmon populations and restore the bountiful environment that we all require. Codifying weaker standards in a federal drought bill could make conditions even worse now and in the future.

This bill is just in its beginning stages, and we look forward to working with Senator Feinstein and her staff to address these concerns as it moves through the regular legislative process, including committee hearings. We’ve already shared our concerns with Senator Feinstein, and we plan to continue working to make sure that California’s drought is addressed in ways that help, rather than harm, salmon, orcas, and the diversity of other creatures that depend on the clean, fresh water that flows into the San Francisco Bay.


Rachel Zwillinger

Rachel Zwillinger

Water Policy Advisor
As the Water Policy Advisor for Defenders’ California Program, Rachel Zwillinger focuses on protecting the fish and wildlife that depend upon California’s waterways and wetlands.  

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