Protecting California's Salmon and Smelt

Baykeeper and Partners Continue the Long Fight to Protect California's Salmon and Smelt from Overpumping in the Delta

Baykeeper is a member of the environmental, fishing and native peoples coalitions that are fighting a contentious court battle to protect California's salmon and Delta smelt populations from increased water diversions in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Since the increased diversions began, California's salmon and smelt populations have plummeted dramatically. Commercial water districts and agricultural interests continue to challenge the protections we've secured in federal court.

salmonWater exports from the Delta threaten the survival of California’s Chinook salmon and Delta smelt by reducing freshwater flow, eliminating spawning habitat and killing juvenile fish that are sucked into the pump machinery. Every year, millions of gallons of water are pumped from the Delta to irrigate rice and other water-intensive crops grown in the semi-arid Central Valley. In 2004, water managers increased Delta water exports to record levels, and since then, numerous fish populations have declined to historic lows. California’s 150-year-old salmon fishery was closed in 2008 and 2009.

smeltWater managers based the increased exports on a biological opinion – the scientific document that guides Delta water management – stating that no harm would result to Delta smelt as a result of increased pumping. Baykeeper and partners filed suit in 2005 arguing that the opinion was not based on science and was at odds with all indications that the Delta smelt population was already on the verge of collapse. We filed another coalition lawsuit in 2005 regarding similar harm caused to California's Chinook salmon population. The cases are parallel and are now being heard by the same federal district judge.

Between 2007 and 2009, the judge issued a series of rulings in favor of the environmental coalitions, including ordering that new biological opinions be written. In 2008 and 2009, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service issued new biological opinions stating that water diversions from the Delta are in fact harming Delta smelt, spring-run Chinook salmon, Central Valley steelhead and green sturgeon and requiring reduced pumping.

Farming interests recently engineered a review of the 2009 biological opinions, but the National Academy of Sciences concluded in March 2010 that the science was in fact justified.

Baykeeper and partners are continuing to fight off ongoing appeals of the opinion and the court's rulings. The lawsuit to save the salmon was brought by Baykeeper, The Bay Institute, Natural Resources Defense Council, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, Institute for Fisheries Resources, California Trout, Friends of the River, Northern California Council of the Federation of Fly Fishers and the Winnemem Wintu Tribe. The Delta smelt case was brought by Baykeeper, the Bay Institute, National Resources Defense Council, Friends of the River and California Trout. Both coalitions are represented by Earthjustice.