In the 1960s, Florida’s Kissimmee River was transformed by the Army Corps of Engineers from a meandering, ecologically-rich, scenically-stunning, 103-mile-long river into a straight, 56-mile-long, 300-foot-wide, 30-foot-deep ditch. As a result, the watershed lost 90 percent of its waterfowl (including 70 percent if its bald eagles) and most of its largemouth bass fishery.
Thirty years later, after acknowledging the wholesale destruction of the Kissimmee River, the Corps of Engineers announced what they euphemistically called “Phase II” of the Kissimmee River project, namely the restoration of the historic river bed and expansion of high water flows back into the original flood. That project has now cost at least $1 billion, and it’s not finished.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Take the Central Valley Project Improvement Act (CVPIA), a bit of oxymoron bureaucratese that, like the Kissimmee River restoration project, was designed to “improve” the fishery conditions in Central Valley watersheds – notably including the San Joaquin and Sacramento River systems – after they were ecologically ravaged by the state and federal water projects.
Now, a new Chinook salmon index, recently released by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Golden Gate Salmon Association, reveals that only 13 percent of the population goal required by federal law has been achieved. That information was released following the 20th anniversary of the CVPIA, passed by Congress in 1992 with a goal of doubling the Bay-Delta’s salmon runs from 495,000 to 990,000 wild, adult fish by 2002.
It is now a decade after the doubling was supposed to be achieved and the “improvement” effort is still 87 percent shy of its goal.
The Central Valley’s Chinook (or king) salmon fishery has suffered a dramatic collapse over the past decade and, according to Barry Nelson, senior policy analyst with NRDC’s Water Program, “California salmon, the fishing industry and the Bay-Delta ecosystem all need adequate water flows to maintain their health over the long-term. The Department of the Interior and the State of California need to dramatically step-up efforts to protect the San Francisco Bay-Delta ecosystem and restore salmon populations.”
The NRDC and GGSA analysis, published in the Salmon Doubling Index, reveals a steady decline in Bay-Delta Chinook salmon from 2003 through 2010, at which point it reached a record low of 7 percent. Increased water diversions were a significant cause of this decline. Between 2000 and 2006, freshwater pumping from the Bay-Delta increased 20 percent in comparison to 1975-2000.
Rep. George Miller, D-CA 7th District, authored the CVPIA and is angry at the pace of “improvement,” stating, “Despite indefensible foot-dragging and countless lawsuits, salmon restoration has remained the lynchpin of federal water policy in California for 20 years … and it’s long past time for the federal agencies to take their responsibility to our state’s wild fisheries seriously. The federal government must restore California’s iconic salmon runs to health: that’s the law.”
While salmon numbers have recently improved thanks to reduced pumping forced by a lawsuit, recovery is a long way off. We agree with Rep. Miller. It’s time for more action.