Summer 2015 Temporary Urgency Change Petition: Deadly for Delta Smelt

What does the May 21 TUCP mean for the Delta if the State Board adopts it for the summer? What would be the consequences of weakening the outdated standards for outflow and salinity do to the Bay-Delta ecosystem?


Location of X2 and Delta Outflow

The location of X2, the critical location of the Low Salinity Zone center where salinity is 2 parts per thousand (ppt), is shown below for various Net Delta Outflow Indices (NDOI). The existing standards and proposed changes are as follows:

  • 4000 cfs NDOI in July – 3000 cfs proposed
  • 3000 cfs NDOI August – 2500 cfs proposed for September
  • X2 (2.78 mmhoes EC) required at Emmaton (EMM) moved upstream to Threemile Slough (TMS) through August 15 (no limit thereafter)
Location of X2 in Bay-Delta at various Delta outflows (NDOI cfs).

Location of X2 in Bay-Delta at various Delta outflows (NDOI cfs).

Effect on Water Temperature

In June weakened standards from a previous TUCP were 4000 cfs NDOI, with X2 allowed at TMS. Water temperature at X2 location by mid-June reached 70-73°F, levels considered sublethal but stressful on Delta Smelt.

stressful on Delta Smelt.   Early June 2015 water temperatures in X2 region.

Early June 2015 water temperatures in X2 region.

On June 12, 2015, X2 reached Rio Vista Bridge (for first time this year) on high tide after midnight at 72°F (NDOI was 5200 cfs). Afternoon water temperatures at bridge at low tide had been >74°F. When EC was 2000 at TMS, the water temperature was 72°F. On this date in 2012, the X2 location was downstream of EMM, with an NDOI of 7100 cfs and a water temperature of 69°F. On this date in 2013, X2 was downstream of EMM, with an NDOI of 7500 cfs and a water temperature of 68°F. On this date in 2014, X2 was upstream of EMM, with an NDOI of 3150 cfs and a water temperature of 72°F. The pattern is consistent with the hypothesis that the further X2 is east, the warmer the water temperature will be. The pattern also indicates that the normal standard of 7100 cfs keeps water temperatures at X2 below 70°F, at least in late spring.

My prediction for water temperature for July through September in the X2 region is shown below. This conservative prediction is based on June 2015 and June-September 2014 data.

Predicted summer water temperatures in X2 region of the Delta under proposed weakened standards.

Predicted summer water temperatures in X2 region of the Delta under proposed weakened standards.

Consequences to Smelt and Salmon

Delta Smelt, already on the brink of extinction, will be further stressed by near lethal water temperatures in the X2 region. We can assume that only a small number of smelt remain in the X2 zone going into summer 2015, as compared to 2012 (see following charts). Any remaining smelt in the X2 zone must be protected at least at the normal standards as in 2012. Any weakening of the critical year standards will jeopardize the existence of the species.

No Delta Smelt were collected from the X2 zone in late May 2015.  Only 5 were collected at the northern Deep Water Ship C

No Delta Smelt were collected from the X2 zone in late May 2015. Only 5 were collected at the northern Deep Water Ship Channel station.”

 In contrast to 2015, the distribution of Delta Smelt in late spring 2012 shows higher numbers collected in the X2 zone below Emmaton under NDOIs of 8000-10,000 cfs.  Water temperatures at that time in the X2 zone were <70°F.

In contrast to 2015, the distribution of Delta Smelt in late spring 2012 shows higher numbers collected in the X2 zone below Emmaton under NDOIs of 8000-10,000 cfs. Water temperatures at that time in the X2 zone were <70°F.

Fall Run Chinook Salmon enter the Bay-Delta on their spawning migrations from the ocean in August-September. Expected near -lethal water temperature (>77°F) will delay and stress these fish. Expected water temperatures greater than 70°F will stop migrations and degrade subsequent adult salmon pre-spawn survival and egg viability. The proposed 2500 cfs outflow standard for September will result in water temperatures of 73-75°F in the X2 zone near Rio Vista in mid-September. In contrast, in mid -September 2012, outflow was 7100 cfs and water temperatures at Rio Vista and the X2 zone near Emmaton were <70°F.

Are Winter and Spring Run Salmon being protected below Shasta? Absolutely Not!

By now it is common knowledge that 95% of last year’s endangered Winter Run Chinook salmon production in Sacramento River below Shasta-Keswick Dams was lost due to low flows and high water temperatures in summer. Large losses also occurred to Spring Run and Fall Run salmon. As they did last year, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, US Bureau of Reclamation, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and California State Water Resources Control Board are managing water releases from Shasta Reservoir to ensure flows and water temperatures are adequate for Spring Run and Winter Run salmon spawning adults and eggs and alevins in gravel beds. This year they all assured us they had adequate water and cold water pool to maintain flow and cool water temperatures to protect the salmon in the upper spawning reach near Redding. They acknowledged there was insufficient water to protect the lower spawning reach below Redding (down to Red Bluff).

Already two months into the irrigation season and after a quarter million acre-feet of water released to water contractors (about 10% of Shasta storage and 25% of the cold water pool), Reclamation has determined they overestimated the available amount of cold water pool and their ability to maintain flow and water temperatures for salmon into the fall. Fearing the worst, storage releases have been reduced, and protective water temperature limits in the Redding spawning reach have been raised to conserve the cold water pool.

We only have to look at the State Board’s own science review of water temperature effects on salmon1  to see if water management in the spawning reach is protecting salmon.

  1. Mean Weekly Maximum Water Temperature (MWMT) should not exceed 13C (55.4F) – generally referred to as 56°F limit.
    1. Keswick Dam releases have been slightly higher than 56°F MWMT.
    2. Sacramento River compliance point above Clear Creek has MWMT of 60°F.
    3. Clear Creek upstream of mouth has a MWMT greater than 60°F.
    4. Sacramento River below Clear Creek at Anderson has MWMT OF 62°F.
  2. Daily maximum water temperature should not exceed 13.5-14.5°C (56-58°F) from fertilization through fry development.
    1. Keswick releases have reached 56°F.
    2. Sacramento River at compliance point above Clear Creek has reached 60.7°F.
    3. Sacramento River below Clear Creek at Anderson has reached 62°F.
  3. Optimal temperatures for egg incubation is <13°C (55°F).
    1. Exceeded throughout spawning reach.
  4. Water temperature when pre-spawning mortality of adult Chinook becomes pronounced in ripe adult salmon – 13-15.5°C (55-60°F)
    1. Exceeded throughout spawning reach.

Obviously the 56-60°F maximum daily water temperatures in the primary spawning reach above the mouth of Clear Creek at Redding are a concern. The State Board has raised compliance from 56°F to 58°F in attempt to conserve cool water through the summer. They have also reduced allowed Keswick releases from 8000-9000 cfs to 7500 cfs for the summer to save storage and the cold water pool. Reclamation is keeping Keswick releases near 7000 cfs.

Our concern is for pre-spawn ripe adult mortality and egg viability, as well as egg viability and embryo survival in redds. The agencies seem to think maximum daily temperatures near 60°F are ok, when they are not. Destroying this year’s egg production before the cold water pool is exhausted should not be the approach. Maximum temperatures should not exceed 56°F above Clear Creek. A maximum temperature of 58°F should be the absolute limit.

Far more important is the water temperatures in the redds, which tend to occur in shallow pool tailouts that are often warmer than average river temperatures. There must be a margin of protection for this difference. Redd temperatures should also be carefully monitored.

Clear Creek at Redding Tempratures

Puget Sound Winter Steelhead Sport Fishing – Gone for Good?

Puget Sound is a large inland marine system whose rivers and streams have historically had excellent populations of winter steelhead (both native and hatchery fish) that supported important sport fishing opportunities. Many anglers would brave rain, cold and snow to stand in a stream for hours, trying to hook onto one of these prized fish (up to a trophy size of 20 lbs). Sadly, over the last few decades, this sport fishery has been slowly disappearing and is now almost gone, maybe for good. How come?

A little bit of background on major events that have affected this sport fishery. First was the Judge Boldt decision in 1972, where the judge ruled that the salmon/steelhead resources within Puget Sound must be shared 50-50 between Native Americans and non-Native Americans. This immediately decreased the number of steelhead and salmon available to the sport fishermen. It also led to the co-management of the resources. Various positive and negative opinions have been expressed over the Boldt decision. However, it set the management in a different direction with more people involved. It also set new and untested legal issues in motion.

A second event that affected this fishery was the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Through many legal battles, protection of “wild” or “native” steelhead became paramount because studies with various results showed that hatchery steelhead were/were not as viable as the “native” fish. You can pick which side you want on this one, because studies with both positive and negative results exist. It has been claimed, however, that hatchery fish are not good for the native fish (even though they swim around in the Pacific Ocean for several years and return to their stream of origin to spawn). Likely, most sport fishermen and the general population would like to see strong returns of “native” fish, with no need for hatcheries.

In addition to the Boldt decision and the ESA, other legislation has also affected the salmon and steelhead populations of Puget Sound (and elsewhere along the Pacific Coast). Of particular interest is the protection of seals, sea lions, and other predators (such as birds) under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and other legislation.

How have these events affected the winter steelhead sport fishery? First, as noted above, the Boldt decision diminished the number of fish available to the sport fishery. To some degree, this was mitigated by a very active program to develop mark-selective fishing on hatchery steelhead. Though details changed, the general approach was to mark outmigrating steelhead at hatcheries by removing the adipose fins (a small fin near the tail of the fish). With this clearly visible “mark”, the fishermen were allowed to keep marked fish, but unmarked fish (i.e., fish with a visible adipose fin) had to be returned to the stream (i.e., not kept). Other measures, such as using barbless hooks and reduced seasons, were implemented to further protect the “native” fish. These efforts allowed a viable winter steelhead fishery to occur, although the success rate per angler in Puget Sound streams has diminished, likely due to population growth and increased interest in this fishery.

The ESA has been used to eliminate much of the hatchery production of winter steelhead in Puget Sound streams. In a recent legal dispute, the “Wild Fish Conservancy” fought for the elimination of hatchery production of winter steelhead in Puget Sound streams. The case was settled with the Washington Department of Fisheries and Wildlife (WDFW) paying the legal fees and several thousand dollars to the Conservancy (the funds likely came out of sport fishermen’s money paid for license fees). As part of the settlement, the WDFW also agreed to not release any outmigrant steelhead from hatcheries in many Puget Sound streams. In 2014, the outmigrants that were already being reared in the hatcheries were released to lakes or other water bodies where they could not migrate to the ocean and return as adults. That left only one year of young hatchery fish to keep the hatchery system operable. So, what happened in 2015? The WDFW again released the outmigrants into non-migratory lakes. With no winter steelhead in the mark/selective approach returning as brood stock, the hatchery program has essentially dissolved, and future prospects for any revival are dependent on a determination by the National Marine Fisheries Service on whether or how hatchery management can be made compatible with recovery of wild Puget Sound steelhead.

The protection of predators on steelhead (as mentioned above) is only one additional step down for future steelhead recovery. The virtual explosion of marine mammal populations with little or no control (because of protection under the MMPA) further diminishes the populations available for any future sport fishing.

Is this situation (i.e., elimination of the sport fishery for steelhead in certain Puget Sound streams) a universal event? The answer is no. Some streams in Washington support very important winter steelhead sport fisheries through hatchery production. A good example is the Cowlitz River in southwest Washington. The returns of adult winter steelhead this year were so good that the limit was raised from 2 fish to 3 fish per day, mainly because the hatchery had sufficient numbers of returning adults for its program. Another example is the Columbia River system, which has increasing or record returns of a number of hatchery salmon/steelhead runs that support a very viable sport fishing program.

So, what’s the bottom line on the differences between the decline in Puget Sound sport fishing opportunities in Puget Sound (ongoing for many years) and programs that are currently very successful? In my opinion, the successful programs (through many years of negotiations, discussions, and back-and-forth efforts) have established recovery plans that have established goals of re-establishing and increasing salmon/steelhead and have put in the efforts to achieve those goals. It takes time and effort plus considerable amounts of money to make these plans work. On the Columbia, for example, millions of dollars have been spent on research, habitat restoration and enhancement, management, and other planning efforts. This money has been derived from water users, hydropower producers, and others. The sport fishermen also provide additional funds by paying an additional license fee if they fish in the Columbia River basin. Overall, a mix of both hatchery fish and native fish are part of the planning goals.

There are many very positive efforts in Puget Sound to recover steelhead and other anadromous fish populations. However, hatchery fish are not currently in the mix on some streams, and planning efforts appear to be bogged down. What appears to the general public is that winter steelhead sport fishing, for the foreseeable future, will continue to decline and perhaps entirely disappear because no releases of outmigrants have been made to continue the cycle. In addition, it is likely that with the large number of people now in the Puget Sound area, wild fish will not recover to a level that could support a sport fishery.

Are there possible solutions to the challenges of decreased opportunities for sports fishermen? This is a complex question, and many diverse opinions have been expressed. The diversity of environmental conditions and resource utilization play a large role in maintaining or recovering wild steelhead and salmon populations along the Pacific coast. For example, in Alaska, most of the salmon/steelhead populations are wild even though significant commercial fisheries (and localized sport fisheries) exist. In general, the watershed conditions and climate offer favorable conditions for these populations to be sustained.

In contrast to Alaska, the often severe environmental challenges faced by wild salmon/steelhead populations in other Pacific coast states (i.e., Washington, Oregon, and California) need to be realistically factored into the management plans (they are often considered, but the discussion often bogs down before plans are completed or implemented). For example, can wild steelhead/salmon populations be maintained in California if drought conditions leave only dry and impassable stream conditions for outmigrants or returning adults? The answer, of course, is no, unless some type of intervention (e.g., transport around critical areas) is provided. Similarly, under such conditions, can wild fish populations be maintained without some type of intervention such as hatchery supplementation or transport around dry stream beds? If the answer is to eliminate consideration of supplementation (where needed) and other interventions such as transport, the probability is that wild populations can’t support even a limited sport fishery or that the populations will disappear altogether (such as the case where streams run dry due to drought conditions). If the answer is to actively pursue measures to at least maintain populations through some type of interventions in hopes that conditions future conditions become more favorable, there may be a probability that stressed populations can survive.

In Puget Sound, the loss of two years of winter steelhead hatchery production (i.e., no outmigrants) in some streams clearly will diminish the probability of a sport fishery in those streams affected. Environmental conditions such as streamflow are still somewhat favorable to maintenance of residual wild populations which, in general, cannot by themselves sustain a sport fishery.

Hatchery Reform – Part 4

Previously… Part 1: Central Valley Salmon and Steelhead Hatchery Program ReformPart 2: Hatchery Reform, & Part 3: Hatchery Reform

Golden Gate Salmon Association (GGS) Project D.3 Improve Trucking Techniques for Hatchery Salmon Background and Scientific Analysis December 4, 20131

The goal of this project is to improve trucking results especially at the Federal Coleman Hatchery on Battle Creek where there are poor hatchery returns and high straying rates from trucking… The survival of trucked and acclimated fish was substantially higher than that of fish released at the hatchery basin. The combined average trucking improvement from all the hatcheries was 3.49 to 1. The improvements ranged from a high of 71 to 1 at the Feather River hatchery to a low of 1.8 to 1 at Coleman. These figures mean trucking produces many thousands of additional adults for harvest or for return. But, the returns are still very low when compared to the losses that are avoided by trucking the fish around the rivers and the Delta. Studies of the mortality of juveniles migrating down the Sacramento River and through the Delta range up to 90%. Avoiding this loss indicates that the survival of trucked fish should be more in the order of 10 to 1 over basin released fish. Current science cannot explain this difference. More research is needed.

Clearly, their Exhibit 1 below depicts the benefits of trucking in avoiding the many risks in the up to 200 mile trip to the Ocean for Central Valley salmon. Trucking bypasses much of risk, but results in high straying rates. As described previously, barging and out-planting offer potential reduction in straying without giving up the huge advantage in survival and production.

Exhibit 1

Smolt Production from hatchery adults. Kathryn E. Kostow , Anne R. Marshall and Stevan R. Phelps. 2011.2 Naturally Spawning Hatchery Steelhead Contribute to Smolt Production but Experience Low Reproductive Success

Our data support a conclusion that hatchery summer steelhead adults and their offspring contribute to wild winter steelhead population declines through competition for spawning and rearing habitats.

There is considerable scientific study that indicates that the offspring of hatchery salmon and steelhead have lower reproductive success than wild native fish. Wild native fish have many general and locally adapted traits that are often missing in hatchery fish. For Central Valley salmon and steelhead, many of these native traits were lost long ago. Tribes in northern California hope to bring some traits back from wild salmon sent from California to New Zealand a hundred years ago. Recently, special traits involving greater growth and longevity of Lahontan Cutthroat Trout were restored to Pyramid Lake in Nevada from an outside source.

In the end, we can only hope that restored “wild” populations will begin the natural selection process in restoring traits that contribute to higher survival and production. At minimum, hatcheries should discontinue practices that degrade natural diversity and genetic inheritance, and should focus on improving diversity and traits that enhance the ability to survive Valley conditions now and in the future.

Delta science – so much talk!

As we enter the second year of Temporary Urgency Changes for Delta operations, the State Water Board is leaving Delta fish with no protection from our waste and the summer heat while allowing the storage and diversion of millions of acre-feet of water for cities and farms. Little or no water left the Delta for the Bay this spring, and even less will leave this summer. The Smelt Working Group charged with protecting two species of endangered smelt is about to take its summer hiatus as South Delta water temperature hits 25°C. The State Board has recently been forced to reduce Shasta Reservoir agricultural releases for fear of running out of cool water for winter run salmon again this summer.

The State Board’s “drought relief” orders keep little water reaching the Bay and allow salt water to encroach into the Delta. The False River Barrier has been installed to keep salt out of south Delta water diversions at the expense of north Delta habitat. Interior, USFWS, NMFS, EPA, and CDFW, our resource protection agencies, have “concurred” with the Temporary Urgent Change Petitions from Reclamation and CDWR, and the State Water Board has complied. 1

Meanwhile, the remnants of the Delta Smelt population have become isolated in the Sacramento Deep Water Ship Channel. Reclamation scientists assure us that the smelt will be fine and will descend into the cooler water at the bottom of the channel. The lack of smelt in their traditional designated critical habitat of Suisun Bay and the western Delta low-salinity-zone is apparently not a concern.

In the midst of all this “devastation”, the Delta Science Program held a Delta Challenges Workshop this past March.

“On March 16, 2015 the Delta Stewardship Council’s Delta Science Program hosted a workshop to summarize the risks and challenges facing the Bay-Delta system. These challenges include a multitude of stressors that threaten our ability to achieve the Delta Plan’s coequal goals. Numerous reviews, reports and articles describe the stressors and risks facing the contemporary Delta, but this information is spread across diverse publications, journal articles, and lengthy technical reports. The information has not yet been presented in a highly concise, readable way by an independent set of distinguished science experts.” 2


The Workshop

Dr. Moyle suggested that we prepare for the worst: “We have to prepare for the extinction of Delta smelt: “It seems very likely to happen in the next year or two,” Dr. Moyle said. “The Fall Midwater Trawl index has never been lower, we’re basically not getting any in any of our samples, and then most recently, the Kodiak Trawl sampling has found very few, even in places they normally aggregate.” He noted that the results of the most recent Kodiak Trawl, a survey aimed at catching smelt in the places where they’re supposed to be, and where they have been in the past, were pretty dismal. “They got 6 smelt, 4 females and 2 males. So the smelt are pretty much gone from this system. We don’t know yet but they could easily have reached a threshold that they can’t get back over, that they can’t survive. We need to be thinking now of answers to questions like: how will we know when the smelt is extinct in the wild? Who declares that? How can the captive populations present in Byron, how can these captive populations be used for re-introduction when better conditions return, at least temporarily, or even should they? And how does management of the Delta change if the Delta smelt are gone? What do we do, essentially, in the absence of Delta smelt?”

Others spoke on adaptive management: “Dr. Goodwin asked Maria Rea about doing large landscape-scale experiments. “To really do an experiment on the scale that needs to be done, and it’s an experiment so you don’t necessarily know what the outcome is, that puts people making decisions in a very difficult position, and I just wonder, how, as a science/policy/management community, what needs to be done to allow these landscape-scale experiments to go on?”

“We do need to get better at experimentation,” Maria Rea answered, noting that with salmon, they’ve done a bunch of tagged fish studies, some with active adaptive management. “The Vernalis Adaptive Management Program had an active component to it, but the number of fish tagged was insufficient to allow any real conclusions to be drawn from that, and so I think we’ve got quite a bit of work to do to. If we’re going to do a large-scale experiment and actually manipulate the system, then let’s make sure we’re growing enough fish and getting enough tags to put in the system that will actually be able to deduce something from the data that we get.”

The need for more money for more science came up: Dr. Luoma noted that since between 1997 and 2010, there was a large injection of science into the system, tens of millions of dollars. “That was a sign of what we need to keep things moving rapidly,” he said. “That money has dried up … If we’re going to really continue on this journey of trying to make progress, it’s obvious we need a big injection of science somewhere managed by the science program. We need an injection of science that allows us all to work together. That’s desperately needed now or else we’re just going to start flailing.”

“We need to explore performance measures, of having something that we can track that helps the policy makers understand the question, what has to happen next. “I think it was Bill Dennison who ran that workshop several years ago, showed us what you can do with a really organized system of performance measures that gets the public involved, gets the policy makers involved. We can do that, we just haven’t done it. I think this is something we really have to focus on doing right.”

Of course, there is always the concept that the Delta continues to evolve and remains hard to understand: Dr. Mike Healey began by noting that one of Jim Cloern’s comments especially resonated with him. “His comment that the Delta is a continually evolving system and we’re never going to be able to fully pin it down. Several people have been talking about wicked problems. Wicked problems have a formal definition in planning and management, and one of the characteristics of wicked problems is that they can’t be solved, they can only be managed. I think that’s probably what we’re looking at is coming up with a system of management that will be hopefully be relatively effective, rather than imagining that we can clearly define this problem and ultimately provide a solution.”

Then there is always the “reality check” and a “happy place somewhere down the road”:
“Once you’ve answered that question, you need to then concern yourself with what’s actually feasible but most of us want something that we’re really not going to be able to get, so we’re going to need to be able to make a reality check and decide what among the things we’d like to have we can actually accomplish, and then the final question is, how do we get to where we want to go from where we are now? And I think we still have a lot of work to do on those latter three questions,” he said. “We’re not anywhere near coming up with the final management plan for this problem as yet, I don’t think,” he said. “But I hope that whatever we can come up with can make some kind of a contribution to making progress, down the road towards that happy place.”

A potential for “boldness” from “outsiders” who can provide a “fresh look” at the problems:
“I really think there is an opportunity here for some boldness, and I hope that we as a foursome will be a bit bold,” he said. “I really do hope that we basically embrace ideas that we can agree upon and present them to you as things that would be the next steps moving forward, or at least our ideas of what that might be, because we need to move beyond just simply continuing to monitor this system. We really need to begin to actually implement some projects, some experiments, and really move that next step down the road to actually beginning to deal with some of the changes that are being imposed on the system and seeing if we can come up with a better and more beneficial ending with some of our attempts. I know it’s fraught with lots of difficulty, and we’re going to make lost of mistakes, but I think we need to be bold and move forward. And hopefully we can give you some ideas on how we think that might be best done.”

And finally, “something learned”, “fun”, and a “ridiculous challenge”:
After public comment, Letty Belin with the Department of the Interior then gave some final thoughts. “I think it’s been an extraordinary day,” she said. “I bet you there’s not a single person in this room that hasn’t learned something significant. I’m still amazed that we got this incredibly talented and experienced panel to accept what I acknowledge is a ridiculous charge. If I had this assignment, I would first turn it back to the teacher and say this is impossible, you cannot summarize this stuff in 15 to 20 pages, and then I’d ask what size can the font be, can it be like .333 but anyway I know it’s particularly fun to hear your reactions and use words like fun.

“I can’t tell you how important I think this effort is,” she continued. “I think it’s going to be incredibly helpful, because policy making in such a complex scientific environment, we need guideposts and people, you all who have both the scientific expertise and the wisdom gained through that, we really are fortunate to be able to get your expertise, so thank you so much.”

Not a word on the drought or changes to Delta water quality standards, or the effects of having no freshwater flow into the Bay.

  1. At a State Board drought workshop earlier this year, the Board chairperson asked the NMFS representative what “concurrence” meant. The NMFS rep responded by stating he had looked up the definition in a dictionary, but they really did not understand its meaning in this case.