Click on Home or the logo above to navigate to the main California Fisheries Blog webpage.

Predators versus River Flow

I keep emphasizing the need for fall flows to get Central Valley salmon fry, fingerling, sub-yearling smolts, and yearling smolts to and through the Delta to the Bay. This especially applies to wild spring-run and to wild and hatchery winter-run and late-fall run, the Chinook salmon runs most in danger of extinction. Extinction comes from population decline and loss of genetic diversity from lower river flows and fragmented habitat. 1

The reason river flow is important is that flow affects habitat, growth, migration, and predation of emigrating salmon.

The long, slow reservoirs behind the mainstem dams on the Columbia River studied by Conner and Tiffan (2012)2 have habitat similar to the long, slow reaches of the lower Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers in the Central Valley. Furthermore, the Delta with its tides acts as a “main-stem” dam, slowing the outward movement of water through the Delta and salmon exiting to San Francisco Bay. The Delta has also been described as the place “where predators meet prey” – where the effectiveness of predation and the role played by “Anthropogenic Contact Points” is accentuated by modified freshwater flows.

The Sacramento River channel at Walnut Grove is one of the key “anthropogenic” contact points in the Delta. The major outlets from the Sacramento River channel to the central Delta, the Delta Cross Channel and Georgiana Slough, are located here (Figure 1). Lehman et al. (2019)3 describe the predator contact points at this location in Figure 1, including submerged aquatic vegetation, rip-rapped levees, docks, and diversions. The role of these particular contact points in predation on juvenile salmon is no doubt significant.

Lehman et al. point out the difficulty in removing the predators and the problematic contact infrastructure. However, they don’t address the role river flow and associated hydrodynamics play in modifying the effects of predators or specific contact points.

In the fall during the peak of winter-run emigration, Walnut Grove is the place where the Sacramento River channel in the north Delta slows and is “diverted” into the abyss of the central Delta. Few salmon escape the central Delta’s many predators and its “anthropogenic contact points”, including the south Delta export pumping facilities. Under low Sacramento River fall inflows (around 12,000 daily average flow at Freeport), high tides cause most of the water and salmon coming down the Sacramento River to divert into the central Delta via the Delta Cross Channel (DCC) and Georgiana Slough (Figure 2). Those young salmon remaining in the Sacramento channel are then vulnerable to the contact points and predators under lower water velocities. If river inflows are higher and the DCC is closed, the risks to young salmon is greatly reduced (Figure 3).

In conclusion, the Lehman study funded by the Metropolitan Water District describes the role of predators and contact point infrastructure including submerged aquatic vegetation, docks, riprap, and diversions. However, the Lehman study does not address the key factors in the fall loss of juvenile fish in the Delta: lower flows and the diversion of water into the central Delta for export. Closing the Delta Cross Channel and increasing river flows are the prescriptions needed to cut losses of emigrating endangered Central Valley salmon. Cutting south Delta exports in the fall would also be beneficial.

Figure 1. Predation contact points near Walnut Grove in the north Delta. Source: From Lehman et al. 2019.

Figure 2. Measured streamflows at USGS gages near Walnut Grove on 12/1/2019 at 8:00 am high tide. The DCC was open and the Sacramento River at Freeport inflow to the Delta was 12,500 cfs.

Figure 3. Measured streamflows at USGS gages near Walnut Grove on 12/5/2019 at the noon high tide. The DCC was closed and the Freeport inflow to the Delta was 21,000 cfs.

  1. Sturrock et al. 2019.
  2. Connor, W. P., and K. F. Tiffan. 2012. Evidence for parr growth as a factor affecting parr-smolt-survival. Transactions of the American Fisheries Society 141:1207–1218, 2012.
  3. Lehman, B.M., et al. 2019.