California’s freshwater fish are in trouble. The causes are many and include the way we manage water and land as well as this unusually warm drought. The decline of these fishes can lead to broader consequences, particularly if they are declared threatened or endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA).
There are pragmatic reasons to avoid this outcome. Listings under the ESA lead to “emergency room” actions to prevent extinctions, often reducing flexibility for water management and bringing significant economic consequences. Of the 30 California freshwater fishes now designated as threatened or endangered, 14 have affected local and regional water supply management. Three—delta smelt, winter-run Chinook, and spring-run Chinook—are a dominant constraint on the Brown administration’s proposal for new water conveyance in the Delta (California WaterFix).
To illustrate the scope of the problem, here are some examples of fish that are in decline but are not yet federally listed. If listed, the measures needed to protect them will have significant effects on the water supply:
- Central Valley late-fall- and fall-run Chinook salmon. These are the last unlisted salmon runs in the Central Valley. Both—particularly the late fall-run—may be future candidates for listing. Fall-run Chinook are the basis of the state’s salmon fishing industry. Federal listing would add new restrictions, ensuring year-round constraints on water supply operations in the Central Valley and the Delta.
- Upper Klamath–Trinity fall- and spring-run Chinook salmon. Both runs are increasingly at risk within the Klamath Basin, with the potential to complicate efforts to complete the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s effort to improve habitat on Klamath River tributaries such as the Scott and Shasta Rivers, and operations of the Central Valley Project, which diverts water from the Trinity River to the Sacramento River.
- North Coast steelhead. Two populations of steelhead—Northern California and Klamath Mountains Province—have been in decline at least partly from the effects of dams. The expansion of marijuana farms and the drought have increased stress on these populations. Federal listing would complicate recently launched efforts of the California Department of Food and Agriculture and the State Water Board to license medical marijuana farms and better manage water resources in this region.
Improving the way California manages water for environmental purposes is key to preventing new ESA listings. The development of environmental water budgets would create an opportunity to more flexibly and effectively manage the aquatic environment. The details of this proposal are contained in the PPIC Water Policy Center report Allocating California’s Water: Directions for Reform.
Although establishing environmental water budgets would often require setting aside more water than we do now to protect at-risk species, this approach is likely to be more flexible and less disruptive than regulations arising from ESA listings. California needs new tools, such as environmental water budgets and the willingness to take proactive steps to keep species out of the emergency room.
Read the report Fish Species of Special Concern (Moyle et al., July 2015)