Protect salmon, drinking water, and the San Francisco Bay-Delta

A houseboat docks in Brentwood, in the bay-delta ecosystem where salmon face weaker protections. Photo: Paul Chinn, The Chronicle
A houseboat docks in Brentwood, in the bay-delta ecosystem where salmon face weaker protections.
Science tells us the world is experiencing a sixth extinction. For California, one of the most environmentally aware places on the planet, to give up on protecting our salmon runs, upon which tens of thousands of jobs depend, rather than conserve and recycle water, would not just be a disaster for salmon communities, it would be a disaster for the state and the world.
Last week, Congress passed disastrous legislation weakening protections for San Francisco Bay-Delta salmon under the Endangered Species Act. Even The Chronicle recently editorialized that “It may be prudent to let some species or some salmon runs go extinct.”
The Golden Gate Salmon Association, representing sport and commercial salmon-fishing families, salmon-related businesses and communities, disagrees. Letting any species, especially salmon, go extinct would harm drinking water for millions, as well as tens of thousands of fishing jobs and the bay-delta ecosystem. The best guardians of the bay-delta’s health, including drinking water, are laws requiring minimum flows from the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers through the delta and to the bay. These flows are mandated for species protection and to prevent salty water from contaminating drinking water from the delta. Case in point: Last summer, flows into the delta dropped to the point that it became a stagnant cesspool in places. Toxic blue green algae spread. The solution: Reduce upstream diversions to ensure more river flow reaches the delta and bay as nature intended. In this way, protecting water quality can help keep fish and wildlife healthy. Protections for endangered salmon in the Central Valley provide an umbrella of benefits to other (not listed as endangered) salmon runs. There are a half dozen bay-delta fish species in danger of extinction, and more in steep decline. Allow one salmon run to go extinct and you’ll set off a domino effect of ecological destruction. Keeping our salmon runs healthy isn’t that difficult. It requires using outlets in the bottom of some dams to release cold water when salmon spawn. It requires dam releases in the fall to prevent salmon eggs incubating on the shallow edges of rivers from being left high and dry. It requires allowing water flows in the spring to carry baby salmon through the delta and out to sea. It also means restoring floodplain salmon habitat that can also protect cities from flooding while recharging underground aquifers. We can do this. Maybe a handful of growers in the San Joaquin Valley who depend on subsidized Northern California water for their vast holdings would be happy to see salmon go extinct. The rest of us believe giving up on salmon is like giving up on California. The State Water Resources Control Board is determining how much water will be required to keep the bay-delta and native fisheries healthy. Smart water managers are planning to reduce reliance on bay-delta water by tapping into billions of gallons of new water from recycling, conservation, storm water capture and more. We have supply options other than draining our rivers. We’re likely to see more attacks on salmon, endangered species, and the bay-delta in 2017. Californians need to rally to oppose those efforts. John McManus is the executive director of the Golden Gate Salmon Association.