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Can salmon survive California's 'Peripheral Canal'?

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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."

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