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Adult Winter-Run Salmon Migration in Jeopardy under New Biological Opinion

As we enter May 2020, winter-run Chinook salmon are in the middle period of their near 300-mile adult migration up the Sacramento River to spawning grounds below Shasta Dam near Redding, CA. These adult salmon are in jeopardy this spring from low flows and high water temperatures in the lower Sacramento River. The new federal biological opinion on the long term operation (BO-LTO) of federal Central Valley Project (CVP) and State Water Project (SWP) that went into effect in October 2019 is not protecting these migrating adult winter-run.

State of California water right permits for the CVP/SWP and the Central Valley Basin Plan have prescribed standards (e.g., maximum allowed lower Sacramento River temperature of 68°F). However, federal and state agencies have largely ignored these standards.1

Figures 1-4 depict the basic problem: water temperatures in the lower 120 miles of the Sacramento River from Wilkins Slough downstream to Rio Vista are in excess of stressful or near-lethal levels, levels known to hinder or even block migrations, and levels known to reduce (1) survival, (2) successful spawning, and (3) subsequent egg viability of the adult salmon.

At a minimum, water temperature objectives in the Basin Plan and Water Right Order 90-05 should be met. It is simply unacceptable for water temperatures at Verona (RM 80) to be 70°F or higher. Maintaining lower river flows near 6000 cfs near Wilkins Slough (RM 120) and near 10,000 cfs near Verona (below the mouth of the Feather River) is necessary to meet temperature objectives. Such levels would also reduce water temperatures downstream in the Delta (Freeport and Rio Vista). The 68°F objective in the Basin Plan is a year-round standard and requirement of the water right permit for the state and federal water projects in the Sacramento River Basin.

The 68°F objective was met more frequently in recent below normal water years 2012, 2016, and 2018, at least well into the month of May (Figure 5). It was also met more frequently later into the spring in the 2008-2010 drought period (Figure 6).

In conclusion, there is a continuing eroding of the Sacramento River temperature standard, which appears to have accelerated under the new BO-LTO. Higher spring water temperatures are a serious risk to the winter-run salmon population.

Figure 1. April 2020 Sacramento River water temperatures near Red Bluff (RDB, RM 240), Wilkins Slough (WLK, RM 120), and Verona (VON, RM 80). Blue line is upper limit of optimal migration temperature. Green line is safe limit. Orange line is beginning of stressful level. Red line is beginning of lethal or avoidance/blockage level.

Figure 2. April 2020 Sacramento River water temperature and flow near Wilkins Slough (WLK, RM 120). 20°C is equivalent to 68°F.

Figure 3. April 2020 Sacramento River water temperatures and tidally filtered flow near Freeport in the Delta.

Figure 4. April 2020 Sacramento River water temperatures and tidally filtered flow near Rio Vista in the Delta.

Figure 5. Spring water temperatures in the lower Sacramento River at Wilkins Slough (WLK) and Verona (VON) in 2012, 2016, and 2018 below-normal water years. Red line is Basin Plan maximum objective.

Figure 6. Spring water temperatures in the lower Sacramento River at Verona (VON) in 2008, 2009, and 2010. Red line is Basin Plan maximum objective.


  1. The BO includes this statement on page 230: “The Spring pulses are also expected to benefit adult winter-run Chinook salmon migrating up the Sacramento River later in the spring. The spring pulses would provide improved water flows that in turn provide cooler temperatures (improved Water Temperature), and allow for better passage conditions”. However, the BO-LTO prescribes no spring flow pulses at all for drier years like 2020.