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Remaking Flood Management to Support Salmon

Lori Pottinger July 18, 2018
KMG Gopro Fish 14005

California’s aquatic ecosystems and the species that depend on them are in trouble. Dramatic changes in water and land use over the past 150 years have transformed the state’s freshwater landscape, and the latest drought brought additional stress. We talked with Lewis Bair, general manager of Reclamation District No. 108, about where we need to go from here.

PPIC: What needs to change to reverse the crisis in the state’s aquatic ecosystems?

Lewis Bair: California’s water infrastructure was designed to manage floods and provide water for crops, and when it was built we didn’t really understand how this system might affect fish and other species. Now we know that the state’s flood management system cuts off rivers from their floodplains, which provide important habitat for aquatic creatures. We’re starving our ecosystem. We’ve removed 90% of the floodplains and lost 80% of the fish.

There used to be 25 salmon canneries on the Sacramento River. Between 1910 and 1930 the canneries lost 80% of their harvest. California hadn’t yet built its big reservoirs when this happened, but we had completely separated rivers from their floodplains, which were the main source of food for the fish. There are plenty of challenges for struggling species in California, but the floodplain issue is one we haven’t addressed and I think it could make a significant difference, especially for salmon.

Going forward, we need a fundamental change in our mindset, from the current focus on regulatory or mitigation approaches for habitat work to an emphasis on recovery. We need to get steady funding for recovery efforts and build the relationships required to be successful. That requires a lot of big changes—and also requires people to get out of their silos. We need better-coordinated science. And we need to review what we’ve learned and build on it.

PPIC: What does the condition of California’s salmon tell us about what is happening in aquatic ecosystems?

LB: Salmon are struggling, and it’s not a surprise. But there are things we can do to help. I’ve been fortunate enough to work on projects to restore parts of the floodplain to help salmon in the Sacramento Valley. There’s no question that floodplain restoration is the most important thing we can do for salmon right now. Our current flood management system tries to drain land quickly, but salmon and other creatures need the water to say in place awhile. The natural floodplain used to spread flood waters over a few weeks. Now the water comes and goes in just a few days. We’re working on a project that spreads water out and allows “fish food” to grow. You need 3‒4 weeks for that process to be really productive.

These floodplain efforts take place during winter, an off season for farming, which makes it a complementary practice to farming. The fish are essentially a third crop for these lands—rice is grown in summer, and the flooded rice fields support waterfowl in fall and winter.

PPIC: What’s needed to take recovery to the next level?

LB: We’re working with some environmental NGOs now to draft ideas on how to modernize the state’s water infrastructure to improve water for ecosystems. I truly believe that we have broad agreement on at least 90% of what is needed for our environment. Instead of arguing about the 10% where we don’t agree, we need to get the 90% done. The state may need something like a resources department with the authority and vision to oversee multiple agencies. The governor’s EcoRestore program for the Delta is one model for providing that leadership. Success will depend on having the locals and NGOs in key roles on the ground.

I’m very excited about the direction things are going right now. We have great NGO partners wanting to get past the perception that water users are the bad guys―now it’s all about how to move forward as partners.

Watch a panel discussion on partnerships for healthy ecosystems (with Lewis Bair)

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