Chinook Salmon & Central Valley Steelhead

Four distinct and significant populations or “runs” of Chinook (also called “king”) salmon spawn in the Central Valley watershed. Two of these four Chinook salmon runs are protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) -- winter-run Chinook as endangered and spring-run Chinook as threatened. The Bay Institute was instrumental in securing Endangered Species Act protections for spring-run Chinook salmon and has fought for two decades to get adequate implementation of ESA protections for both winter and spring-runs. We also advocate for enhanced protection and eventual restoration of the threatened Central Valley steelhead population (steelhead are ocean-going rainbow trout).

Chart Showing Sacramento River Fall Run Chinook Salmon Trends

The fall run of Central Valley Chinook salmon once supported an important commercial fishing industry in northern California and Oregon. Recently, fall-run populations have collapsed as well. But none of these populations would be imperiled if the state and federal governments vigorously enforced a suite of laws designed to protect fish populations and their estuarine and upstream habitats or took prompt action when existing regulations prove inadequate.

What Our Salmon Need

Like all migratory fish, the two listed Chinook salmon runs and the steelhead population , as well as yet unlisted fall- and late fall-run Chinook, need healthy rivers and estuaries to survive, migrate, and reproduce. Upstream, salmon require cold water to incubate their eggs and support juvenile rearing. Access to historic spawning grounds in the Central Valley is now blocked by dams (sometimes more than one) on each of our major rivers. The release of water from these dams is timed to meet human needs (usually for agriculture and power generation) and often the temperature and volume of water released are insufficient to meet the needs of young salmon.

If they survive degraded conditions upstream, young salmon attempt to migrate to the ocean where they will spend several years growing. To accomplish this journey, the salmon must migrate through the Delta and San Francisco Bay twice (once on their way out to sea, and again when they return to spawn). On average, about 50% of the runoff from the Central Valley watershed to the Bay is diverted from rivers or exported from the Delta, severely degrading the habitats in which these salmon rear and through which they must migrate. Some of these migrating juveniles are even caught in water diversion facilities that are so powerful they can make rivers flow backwards! And almost all of the habitats where these fish once reared (particularly, the once widespread floodplains) have been destroyed or separated from the rivers by levees.

Securing Protections for Endangered Salmon
In 2006, The Bay Institute worked with commercial and sport fishing organizations and environmental groups to challenge the National Marine Fisheries Service’s plan for protecting salmon and steelhead from harmful operations of the federal and state water project diversions. In an important victory for the fish, the federal district court threw out the biological opinion in 2008 and ordered the agency to redo it, this time using the best available science to protect the fish and their habitat. The new biological opinion issued in 2009 incorporates many of the protections The Bay Institute recommended in testimony to the court.

Unfortunately, ever thirsty for more water from the Delta, water districts that export Delta water sued to block implementation of the revised salmon plan. The Bay Institute and its allies are now defending those protections in court.

Envisioning and Creating a Healthy Future for the Delta
Actions that merely prevent salmon extinctions in the short term will not be sufficient to maintain viable populations of these amazing creatures for future generations. Many long-term patterns of change (including population growth, global warming, and increasing pollution from agricultural drainage) exert ever-increasing pressure on our salmon and the ecosystems upon which they (and we) rely. The Bay Institute is engaged in several long-term projects designed to secure a brighter and more abundant future for the majestic salmon and steelhead of the Central Valley. Some of these efforts focus on providing scientific and policy guidance for major state and federal regulatory and planning processes to recover endangered species and create a sustainable water management system. Others involve designing and implementing restoration programs on the ground in some of the watershed’s most impacted areas, like the San Joaquin River.

Victory on the San Joaquin
The Bay Institute works with the Natural Resources Defense Council to lead the effort to restore salmon and steelhead to the San Joaquin River. Salmon were extirpated from California’s second largest river more than fifty years ago when construction and operation of Friant Dam dried up major stretches of the river.

Central Valley Fall-run Chinook salmon, 1952-2010

In 2009, following the twenty-year battle to restore the river, water flowed into the long-dry river channel, and spring-run Chinook salmon will be reintroduced starting in 2013.