Native fishes have been hit hard by the drought, with 18 species—including many salmon runs—at high risk of extinction if warm, dry conditions persist. But there are actions we can take now to avert what could be the largest loss of native freshwater fish biodiversity since the arrival of Europeans in California.
The state and federal fish agencies entrusted with preventing these extinctions face formidable challenges. The species at risk cover a very large geographic area and in many regions the options for emergency management actions are limited. Additionally, the total amount of funding allocated to managing the environment during this drought is very modest: $66 million, or roughly 2% of total state drought spending. (We showed this in our report What If California’s Drought Continues? in Table 1.)
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife has taken many actions despite limited resources (see this summary), with more than 30 projects underway. But more can—and should—be done now to prepare for continued drought. Here are some suggestions:
- Initiate an emergency conservation hatchery program. This should start with fish at risk of extinction that are not already the focus of intense conservation. These efforts can be as simple as building temporary holding tanks or as elaborate as temporarily converting production hatcheries to rebuild these populations.
- Establish a robust environmental water emergency fund. This would enable fisheries managers to purchase or trade water to maintain adequate flows and water quality for at-risk fish. It could be modeled after projects by The Nature Conservancy and the Natural Resources Conservation Service. These initiatives use temporary water transfers to flood farm fields in key locations to create waterbird habitat. During times of high stress for native fishes—usually due to low flows and high temperatures—strategic investments that temporarily return water to streams can help keep fish healthy.
- Develop a reservoir drought-operations plan. State and federal agencies should conserve cold, fish-friendly flows at strategic reservoirs next summer. A margin of safety should be built into these allocations to address unusually warm conditions and modeling uncertainties, such as those that decimated winter-run Chinook salmon below Shasta Reservoir the past two years.
- Develop a drought biodiversity management plan. The state should harvest the lessons from management successes and failures during this drought to develop this plan. Environmental management will be more efficient and effective if we have a plan in place before a drought that sets priorities for emergency actions intended to improve species’ resilience. We need to start on this now, while the lessons are fresh.
Many more actions can be taken (examples are outlined in California Species of Special Concern). However, it’s essential that some actions be taken now to prepare for continued drought. While it’s tempting to hope that the record El Niño now building in the Pacific will solve our drought problems, the only sure thing about El Niño is that it is not a sure thing.