Delta Blues

Can salmon survive California's 'Peripheral Canal'?

| July 04, 2012

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What makes Gonella at the Golden Gate Salmon Association nervous is that current plans for the canal's construction include a 15,000-cubic-foot-per-second capacity, enough to virtually suck the Sacramento River dry. Gonella wants to see that capacity reduced, or see a guarantee written into the plans for the "Peripheral Canal" that assures that recipients of the water could never turn the flow up to full.

The current surge in salmon abundance seems to come partly in response to a federal law that took effect three years ago that limits how much water can be removed from the Sacramento River Delta during the winter and spring months, when juveniles of the protected spring- and winter-run salmon are present in the Delta. The fall-run, which is not a listed species, has seen benefits from these water-restriction laws.

Still, habitat conditions in the Delta are generally so poor that baby salmon born in the Sacramento's tributaries must be transported by the millions in trucks and released into the bay, downstream of the Delta and its dangerous water pumps. This trucking program, however, may be downsized due to state budget cuts—which could be a disaster for salmon numbers. Jon Rosenfield, a conservation biologist at the Bay Institute in Novato, says that in spite of the Chinook salmon's hardiness, the Sacramento River has been so severely altered from its natural state by dam-building and water diversions that it can no longer support self-sustaining runs of salmon.

"What [salmon] require is pretty simple," he says. "Sufficient cold water must flow unimpeded from the mountains to the ocean during the appropriate season. The fact that salmon populations are declining dramatically throughout the Central Valley indicates how badly our thirst for water has overtaxed the capacity of our rivers to support wild salmon populations."

Gov. Brown has told reporters that the canal, which is now being designed as part of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan and which could be in operation within several years, will cost $15 billion. But others have second-guessed the governor and believe the water-conveyance project could cost state voters as much as $50 billion or more.

Other critics have made the case that the "Peripheral Canal" could be illegal. In 1992, the Central Valley Project Improvement Act was passed, requiring that the federal government, in words from the Fish and Wildlife Service's website, "protect, restore, and enhance fish, wildlife, and associated habitats in the Central Valley and Trinity River basins of California." Conservationists say this law has been continuously broken for 20 years, and that the "Peripheral Canal" will only further deteriorate the habitat of the Sacramento River's native fish.

Gonella asserts that people must not be deceived by the summer's great salmon fishing into believing the fishery is healthy and stable.

"We're having a great year, and they're expecting a great year next year," Gonella says. "But people don't realize that if we don't get this right, it's game over. The salmon will be gone."


Comments (2)

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Those who oppose the Peripheral Canal fail to include all of the facts in their arguments because the facts do not support their position. Claims that a canal would "remove so much water" are just that---claims. Operational limits of a proposed canal have yet to be finalized yet draft elements of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) already include limits on exports when natural river flows are lower.

There are a myriad of factors impacting salmon (and other fish) populations including water quality, invasive species, predatory fish, and ocean conditions. A recent report by the National Research Council stated that improving ecological conditions in the Delta will fail if they don't target multiple stressors, contrary to the constant drum beat calling for a reduced water supply for farms, homes and businesses.

The Sacramento River fall Chinook escapement, ocean harvest and river harvest index clearly shows population (and harvest) peaks in 1988, 1995, and 2002 with corresponding dips in the intervening years. It is normal to expect a rise in salmon numbers now and in the next few years and that's exactly what we're seeing.

Blaming the pumps or deliveries of water that flow through the Delta as the primary cause of reduced salmon populations is simply an exercise in hiding the facts.

Mike Wade
California Farm Water Coalition

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Posted by Mike Wade on 07/06/2012 at 10:16 AM

Mr. Wade says, " that a canal would "remove so much water" are just that---claims. Operational limits of a proposed canal have yet to be finalized yet draft elements of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan..." But that's exactly the point. There are very long lists of important questions that remain unanswered about how this massively expensive plumbing system would work, it's impact on the ecosystem, and of course how it will be paid for and who pays, that have NOT been answered.

It is not unreasonable to put science and policy BEFORE building this thing. But those who want it don't care about answering the questions. They want what they want and that's all that matters.

Salmon Water Now asks Governor Brown 7 questions that taxpayers and ratepayers would like to have answered. Maybe Mr. Wade has some answers. You can see the short video and the questions here:…

Those who are pushing for the canal to be built ought to stop and think about what it would mean. The march to approval and building needs to be slowed down. Take a look at another video that also helps put this debate in perspective:

Stop and Think:…

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Posted by btokars on 07/09/2012 at 7:05 AM
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