Imagine six or seven thirsty people sitting in a hot room around a small table, at the center of which sits only one medium-sized glass of water. Who gets to drink? If everybody takes a single swallow and passes it on, there could be enough to temporarily quench everyone's thirst. Unfortunately, this is not likely to happen. Several of the people claim that they have a right to all or most of the water, and if there isn't enough for everybody else, too bad. It's especially frightening for one member of the group who has no voice, and can't speak her needs. She was shunted aside the last time this happened and is now close to death. She has many names, but in English she is called Salmon.
A deeply troubled group of high-ranking state officials, tribal leaders, environmentalists and fishermen met July 27 to discuss the triple whammy that is threatening some species of Pacific salmon with extinction — a combination of record-breaking heat, drought and disastrous federal water policies — particularly those of the Trump administration, which drained mountain reservoirs of cold water, sending it to the Central Valley.
The lengthy online hearing, appropriately entitled "California's Salmon Fisheries in Crisis: Historic Drought, Low Flows and Dead Fish," was sponsored by the state Senate Joint Committee on Fisheries and Aquaculture chaired by North Coast state Sen. Mike McGuire. The hearing featured a dozen or so speakers who testified about unprecedented conditions facing the state's rivers and, by turn, salmon.
"Salmon are an incredibly hardy species," said McGuire. "Salmon have migrated [to the ocean] from the cold water of the California streams and mountain rivers for centuries. They overcome great odds to return to their home streams, their birthplace, to lay their eggs and start the process of that great migration over again. ... But today we're witnessing the collapse of that iconic species right in front of our eyes."
Baby salmon need cold water to survive and stay healthy. Usually, in the spring, the Sierra snow pack gradually melts and fills rivers, lakes and streams in northern and eastern California with enough cold water to keep the larger rivers — such as the Klamath and the Sacramento — at tolerable temperatures.
This year, however, the snow pack had vanished by early June. And the ice-melt did not flow into the creeks and rivers but instead sunk into the parched soil, which had been baked from unprecedented heat waves.
"The river is facing some of the most terrible conditions in history — conditions so bad on the Klamath that nearly every fish is infected with heat-loving parasites. So hot that it's going to be too risky to let a single baby fish swim downstream from Iron Gate Hatchery," said McGuire.
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife has done what it could to help the situation, said Director Chuck Bonham, making a "hard decision" to evacuate the hatchery on the Klamath River and move the baby fish to a facility on the Trinity River, and hold them there hoping for better conditions in the fall when they could be transported back to the Klamath and released.
But Bonham said the fish face an onslaught of challenges.
"What is different now is the rapidity with which these extreme events are compounded, creating a cascading effect, a domino effect, that results in species losing the space in which they can rebound," he said.
Eileen Sobeck, executive director of the State Water Resources Control Board, said we are in the third driest water-year in the last century. In the Klamath water basin, which includes the Scott and Shasta rivers, precipitation levels are half of normal across the basin. The Scott is experiencing the fourth driest year on record, and the Shasta the lowest on record.
In response to these conditions, Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency in April, initially affecting only two river basins but which has since grown to apply to 50 out of California's 58 counties.
The State Water Board in March issued notice to 40,000 water rights holders throughout the state, urging them to plan for potential shortages. Users in the Delta, the Scott River watershed and the Russian River watershed received similar notices in June. The board has done much public outreach, and is now circulating draft emergency regulations about water curtailment. Still, Sobeck said, the board has "not been conservative enough to address the current situation." She also noted that there was a problem in monitoring real-time compliance with the curtailment orders.
Bonham worried about the coming year — and the one after that, if this is indeed a mega-drought. He explained that dramatic hatchery rescues were not a reasonable long-term solution to an ongoing problem. He also wondered what would happen if the drought becomes so severe that public health and safety concerns have to compete against the survival of the fish.
Yurok Tribal Chair Joseph James emphasized the importance of salmon to his people's culture and economy.
"We are in a crisis, a full-blown emergency, here on the Klamath River," he said. "We are losing our salmon. They are everything to us. Our children's future depends on it. ... Our culture and economy have been impacted by the loss of fish. Our river is now poisoned with toxic algae. Fathers and mothers can't pass on their knowledge about fishing without fish. ... The Klamath River is who we are. It is our lifeline. It is our livelihood."
He noted that the Yurok Tribe has a recognized right to fish and that comes with a senior water right, giving them the right to have the quantity and quality of water necessary to support fisheries.
However, the Klamath River crosses two states — California and Oregon — and James asserts that the river is being damaged by Oregon's water policies.
"We can't pin all the blame on Mother Nature," said Russell "Buster" Attebery, chair of the Karuk Tribe. "The Klamath Basin is over-allocated. The federal Klamath irrigation project over-allocated water in the early 20th century, thinking that the weather patterns of that era would persist. We all know that was a faulty assumption and there is no endless water supply.
"This is the most disastrous year I've ever experienced in my lifetime," he continued. "State and federal agencies have failed to establish a minimum in-stream flow necessary to protect the fisheries. State and federal agencies have failed to regulate groundwater pumping, enforce existing laws and protect our tribal culture."
Other speakers described the devastating impacts of declining salmon populations upon both the commercial and the sports fishing industries. The inland sports fishing industry, described as an economic engine for the interior, is in danger of total collapse.
Several speakers associated with environmental organizations agreed that bad policy and inadequately-funded state agencies were responsible for many of the problems.
"We need alternatives to taking more water from the rivers," said Kate Poole of the National Resources Defense Council. "We can recycle much of our water."
Attebery wrapped his remarks by thanking Newsom and the Biden administration for their help, and pushing those in attendance to make sure one project decades in the making comes to fruition.
"We must continue to work together to see the dam removal across the finish line," he said. "That's the single greatest thing we can do to advance fishery restoration in the Klamath."
Elaine Weinreb (she/her) is a freelance journalist. She tries to re-pay the state of California for giving her a degree in environmental studies and planning (Somona State university) at a time when tuition was still affordable.