Dead in the water

Government inaction leaves salmon stranded

It may seem like a miracle that migrating salmon are able to navigate from the ocean, through the bay and upstream for hundreds of miles through a complex maze of ditches, rivers, canals and sloughs in the Sacramento Valley in order to spawn. But this is becoming even more difficult for salmon, in fact, because of the drought and government inaction. Currently, many salmon are failing to complete the journey and winding up lost in dead-end backwaters. If they can’t quickly find their way out, the salmon die.

That’s what’s happened to hundreds, maybe more, of chinook salmon in recent weeks. The fish have been getting stuck in the Yolo Bypass canal system just north of Sacramento, ever since the first heavy rains, and are missing out on the now perfect spawning conditions in the Sacramento River.

“This makes the fall-run fish that have arrived later and which are now stuck in Yolo Bypass that much more important,” said Jacob Katz, a biologist with the group California Trout, one of several organizations working to trap and relocate the wayward fish. No one knows how many salmon remain in the canals, but environmental groups and fishery advocates fear the number could be substantial—possibly thousands.

Salmon strandings in the Yolo Bypass are not a new problem. Adult migrating salmon, swimming against the current, may enter the bypass during high-water periods. If the water level drops while the fish are in the canal system—and it often does—they become stuck. And they are unlikely to find their way out.

The Yolo Bypass stranding issue should have been resolved years ago. A federal law passed in 2009, with the scientific oversight of the National Marine Fisheries Service, requires officials to correct the problems that make it possible for salmon, as well as other fish, to become stranded in these off-channel waters. However, the California Department of Water Resources and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation have dodged this responsibility for years.

John McManus, the executive director of the Golden Gate Salmon Association, suspects the reasons for this could be part of a political strategy to facilitate construction of the controversial delta tunnels—the centerpiece of Gov. Jerry Brown’s Bay Delta Conservation Plan. McManus suspects that government agencies may be delaying the Yolo Bypass improvements in order to log the action not as a mandate of existing law but as the first step toward building the tunnels.

“If they were to fix the [Yolo Bypass] problem now, it would be more visible to the public that this was part of the 2009 federal law and therefore not eligible for the BDCP requirements,” McManus said.

Carson Jeffres, a biologist with the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences, said modifying the flow through the Yolo Bypass to keep salmon from what he calls “the canals of no return” would be a simple fix costing some several million dollars. “That’s a drop in the bucket in the total amount of money spent on helping [salmon],” Jeffres said.