Delta Smelt – 2020 Status

In a March 2020 post, I described the status of the Delta smelt through 2019.  This post updates the status with the most recent 2020 information.  Delta smelt continue to be absent from the standard long-term surveys and their related indices.  However, some Delta smelt were collected in 2020 in selected locations of the Bay-Delta during focused intensive special surveys designed to find remaining survivors.  Larval and juvenile Delta smelt were collected in low numbers in the Bay and north Delta (Figure 1).  Pre-adult Delta smelt were also collected in summer trawl surveys (Figure 2).

The north Delta habitats where a few Delta smelt persevere continue to be plagued by constant stressful if not lethal water temperatures (Figures 3 and 4).

As I stated in a prior post, Delta smelt would benefit from increased net flows through the north Delta during the spring and summer.

Figure 1. Numbers of larval and juvenile Delta smelt collected in the spring Enhanced Delta Smelt Monitoring (EDSM) 20-mm nets. Source.

Figure 2. Numbers of pre-adult Delta smelt collected in the summer Enhanced Delta Smelt Monitoring (EDSM) Kodiak trawls. Source.

Figure 3. May through September 2020 water temperature and net tidally-filtered flow in the lower ship channel near Rio Vista. Note water temperatures fall 1-2ºC when net flows increase.

Figure 4. May through September 2020 water temperature and net tidally-filtered flow in Cache Slough near Rio Vista. Note water temperatures generally fall 1-2ºC when net flows increase.

The Delta as Salmon Nursery

The Delta is an important nursery area for Central Valley Salmon. This fact continues to be ignored or under-appreciated. The phenomenon is fully consistent with the general science on salmon in their southern range in the eastern Pacific. Nearly all California Chinook salmon are “ocean-type,” meaning that juveniles reach the ocean in their first six months after rearing for extended periods in estuaries. To grow, young salmon fry need to rear in winter in warm productive areas of floodplains and tidal estuaries (Bay and Delta). Flood control infrastructure limits floodplain habitat except in wetter years. Water management, mainly reservoir storage, limits transport of fry to the Bay except in wetter years.

That leaves the Delta as the key nursery area in non-wet years. Thus, the state of the Delta in non-wet years largely determines the success of Central Valley salmon. Salmon smolt production to the ocean is one to several orders of magnitude lower in drier years, which is the fundamental cause of salmon run declines over the past several decades during periods of drought (Figure 1).

Getting salmon fry to the Delta, successfully rearing them in the Delta, and then getting them to the Bay and Ocean are keys to their success. Peaks between droughts, and even small runs during droughts, are driven by trucking smolts from the hatcheries to the Bay and Ocean, bypassing the Delta survival sink. Without hatchery contributions, the underlying pattern for wild-natural salmon would show drastic declines during and after droughts. Improving Delta-derived smolt production is the key to improving the wild component of Central Valley salmon.

For nearly four decades, I have been promoting Delta salmon habitat improvements.1 I have also helped show the importance of winter rearing of salmon fry in the Delta.2 I have also conducted a comprehensive review of Delta salmon rearing habitats and restoration.3 In other posts in this blog, I have offered much discussion on the role of the Delta in salmon production and survival.

The State Water Resources Control Board is in a multi-year process of updating decades-old water quality standards. Focusing on salmon as a key public trust resource is the way to go. The new standards need to assure that fry get to the Delta, do well in the Delta, and then get to and through the Bay to the Ocean.

Figure 1. Over the past several decades the Central Valley fall-run Chinook salmon has declined sharply during and shortly after three major periods of drought: 1987-1992, 2007-2009, and 2013-2016. Source: CDFW Grandtab.


  1. Cannon , T. C. 1982. The importance of the Sacramento-San Joaquin estuary as a nursery area of young Chinook salmon. Unpublished NMFS report.

May-September Delta Water Temperature Standard Needed

In a 9/22/20 post, I suggested summer Delta outflow standards. In this post I suggest a spring-summer water temperature standard for the Delta as further protection for salmon and smelt. Water temperatures above 23oC (73oF) are harmful to salmon and smelt, which live and migrate through the north and west Delta throughout the summer. Much of the Delta smelt population that remains is located in these regions especially in dry years.1 Spring-run and winter-run salmon migrate upstream through the area in late spring. Fall-run salmon migrate upriver through the summer.

Harm occurs as stress, higher predation, avoidance reactions, poor growth, and reduced long-term survival and reproduction. At higher temperatures (>23oC) migration blockage and mortality occurs. Such temperatures are commonly reached or exceeded in the north Delta even in wetter, water-abundant years.

High water temperatures occur in the Delta when there are high air temperatures and/or low freshwater inflow and outflow. Such conditions are becoming more frequent with climate change. A good example occurred in water year 2020, which featured low precipitation, low snowpack, and high air temperatures.2 Because water managers cannot control air temperatures or watershed precipitation, they must manage Delta inflows from reservoir releases and outflows through the Delta to improve water temperature control in May-September, especially in drier years.

To protect smelt and salmon, there need to be reasonable water temperature standards in the Delta. The existing water temperature standard in the lower Sacramento River above the Delta is 68oF, but managers of the state and federal water projects pay it almost no heed. There is no existing standard for the Delta. The north Delta water quality standard for the Sacramento channel in wet years should be 70oF (21oC) at Freeport and at Rio Vista. In normal and dry water years, the standard should be 72oF (22oC) at Freeport and at Rio Vista. In critical drought years, the State Water Board needs to require additional Delta inflow and curtail exports as needed to respond to extreme events (e.g., water temperatures greater than 75oF during heat waves). At critical times, a change of only a degree or two will help limit fish stress and mortality.

Higher Delta outflow and lower exports are appropriate prescriptions for maintaining reasonable water temperatures in the Delta (see Figures 1-3 and caption notes). For example, in July and August 2020 (Figures 1-3), increased inflow into the 14,000-16,000 cfs range from 12,000 cfs at Freeport could have held water temperature below 22oC. Note in Figure 3 that increased inflow can be captured by south Delta exports (Figure 3). However, during heat waves under extreme drought conditions, the State Board should also limit exports to retain outflows from the Delta to keep the low salinity zone out of the warmer Delta. Otherwise, exports will reduce the portion of Delta inflows (Freeport flows) that reach Rio Vista.

Such standards are achievable, albeit at significant water supply cost. They are worth the effort. High summer water temperatures, such as those that occurred in wet year 2019 and dry year 2020, must be mitigated. The 23-25oC conditions in summer 2020 (portrayed in Figures 1-3) should not occur, and would not under the suggested Delta water temperature standard. For wet years such as 2019 (Figure 4) and 2017 (Figure 5), water temperatures should be kept at or below 70oF (21oC) by maintaining Freeport near 20,000 cfs as needed.

In summary, Delta water quality standards should be adopted for inflow, outflow, and water temperature to protect salmon and smelt in the warmer months of the year, May-September. Such standards are needed because of recent changes in water project operations and the effects of climate change.

Figure 1. Water temperature and salinity in the west Delta near Rio Vista in spring-summer 2020. Note Delta draining in neap-tide periods generally brings warmer water downstream into the west Delta, except in mid-August event when a heat wave drove water temperatures up into 23-25oC range. This event was accentuated by higher exports and associated high Delta inflows.3

Figure 2. Water temperature and net river flow (tidally filtered) in the lower Sacramento River at Freeport in the north Delta in spring-summer of dry year 2020. Note that it took flows at or greater than 16,000 cfs to keep temperatures near 70oF (21oC).

Figure 3. Sacramento River flow at Freeport (FPT), water temperature at Rio Vista (RVB), and south Delta exports at Tracy (TRP) and Banks (HRO) pumping plants in south Delta from May-Oct 2020.

Figure 4. Water temperature and net river flow (tidally filtered) in the lower Sacramento River at Freeport in the north Delta in spring-summer of wet year 2019. Note that it took flows at or greater than 16,000 cfs to keep temperatures near 70oF (21oC).

Figure 5. Sacramento River flow at Freeport (FPT-Y1) and water temperature at Freeport (FPT-Y2) and Rio Vista (RVB-Y2) from May-Oct 2017.

July-Aug 2020 Delta Outflow – New State Standard Needed

The State’s Delta outflow standard for July and August varies from 3000 to 8000 cfs on a 14-day average. The standard in in the drier years is 3000 cfs. The standard in wetter years is 8000 cfs in July and 4000 cfs in August.

These standards have been met for the most part over the past five years (Figure 1). Outflow was greater in 2017 and 2019 than these numeric outflow standards since the State also had to meet the Delta salinity standard that in wet years extends into August. The outflow standard in August 2015 (3000 cfs) was not met under a State Board emergency order in the third year of drought.

The July and August Delta outflow standard should be a 10,000 cfs minimum daily average tidal flow at Rio Vista in the Sacramento River (Figure 2) and 2000 cfs minimum daily average tidal flow at Jersey Point in the San Joaquin River (Figure 3). In addition, a standard of -2000 cfs in False River (Figure 4) is needed to protect endangered smelt and salmon, as well as to protect water quality in the central Delta.1

Standards should also be set to protect against extreme events and circumstances. An example is salt intrusion and high water temperatures in the Delta, such as occurred in a heat wave in mid-August 2020 (Figure 5 and 6). Water temperatures of 23-25oC in the low salinity zone (500-6000 micro-mhos conductivity) are rare and highly detrimental if not lethal to smelt and salmon. Delta exports were raised from 6,000 cfs to 10,000 cfs from 8/10 to 8/22. Delta inflows were raised 4000 cfs during the period to accommodate increased exports (Figure 7). The increasing inflows helped bring warm water from the interior Central Valley into the Delta (Figure 8).

Such conditions should be avoided at all costs. This can be achieved by limiting exports, reservoir releases, or both. August is a peak month of the fall-run salmon migration into the Sacramento Valley. Such high water temperatures would be lethal or avoided with the run being delayed and salmon holding in the Bay. The Delta smelt population concentrates primarily in the low salinity zone, and water temperatures higher than 25oC are lethal to Delta smelt.

I acknowledge the difficulty in meeting these proposed standards, especially in drier years, but they must be adopted to protect the salmon and smelt. New standards are essential for the Delta’s recovery.

Figure 1. Delta outflow in summer of years 2015-2020. Note difference in August between wet (2017, 2019) and drier (2015, 2016, 2018, 2020) years.

Figure 2. Daily average (tidally filtered) flow in the Sacramento River channel at Rio Vista in the north Delta in summer 2020 and average of last 22 years.

Figure 3. Daily average (tidally filtered) flow in the San Joaquin River channel at Jersey Point in the west Delta in summer 2020 and average of last 22 years.

Figure 4. Daily average (tidally filtered) flow in the False River channel in the west Delta in summer 2020 and average of last 22 years.

Figure 5. Water temperature and salinity (specific conductance) at Jersey Pt in the San Joaquin channel of the west Delta in summer 2020.

Figure 6. Water temperature and salinity (specific conductance) at Decker Is in the Sacramento River channel of the west Delta in summer 2020.

Figure 7. Daily average flow in the Sacramento Rivers channel in the north Delta near Freeport in July-August 2020. Note the flow pulse in late August from reservoir releases to meet Delta export increase.

Figure 8. Hourly water temperature of the Sacramento River at Rio Vista in July-August 2020.

  1. A tide gate on False River would help accomplish this objective.

Franks Tract Futures Project

The Franks Tract Futures Project is asking for additional comments on the State’s revised concept design.1 The project is an outgrowth of the State’s 2016 Delta Smelt Resilience Strategy, which recognized that Franks Tract is a death trap for state and federally listed Delta smelt.

The original design for the project included tide gates to keep salt and smelt from moving upstream from the western Delta into Franks Tract via the False River channel. Once in Franks Tract, the smelt would most assuredly not survive. A new design “transforms the project from an early focus on establishing habitat for the endangered Delta smelt to a project that has sought input from a broad range of stakeholders.” According to the project leader, Brett Milligan from University of California:

Balancing the project’s goals has been a challenge. The first round of this project, the feasibility study, met the water quality and ecology requirements but did not meet the recreational and local economy (requirements). We heard you loud and clear. More or less, this entire last year has been to try to bring in that third tier and to balance these and see if there’s a way that the project can meet all of these criteria and be beneficial to all. The original project design failed to earn public support after it was presented in January 2018. At a crossroads, the project managers made a critical decision. They scrapped the proposal and formed an advisory committee of stakeholders with varied interests in Franks Tract rather than try to force the initiative through the process, while fighting the public every step of the way.

The new design drops the barrier/gate option as “a non-starter,” Brett explained to me. But that was the essential element of the project – stopping salt (and smelt) intrusion into the interior Delta due to the pull of the south Delta export pumps. A temporary barrier has been installed in False River in drought years to protect Delta water supplies.

The conflict is over recreational access to Franks Tract from the west via False River. A similar barrier on Montezuma Slough further west in Suisun Marsh resolved a similar conflict with a boat passage lock that maintains boating access when the barrier is in use.

At this phase of design and permitting, it would seem wise to evaluate an alternative with the barrier that includes a similar boat passage facility, so that the affected public can understand the tradeoffs. That is the purpose of the environmental review process.