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Salmon: Canaries in The Water Mine


The largest salmon run in the largest estuary on this hemisphere’s Pacific Coast has collapsed. Why care about a bunch of fish and a big marsh? Well, healthy salmon runs require healthy water: fresh and salt. Crashing salmon runs tell us something in the water(s) has gone terrribly wrong. SF Bay fresh water is sucked up to supply central California crops and communities and Southern California taps. With over 17 million people in the LA area alone, and with California producing over half the nation’s fruit, vegetables, and nuts, SF Bay water affects the price of your greens – and the health of your family, wherever they live. And the salmon tell us the Bay is very sick.

How could the fate of one bay and one fish have such a huge impact? Well, estuaries are the final common pathway that carry a whole river – or multiple rivers – to the sea. The estuary that is the San Francisco Bay holds the water draining from almost one-half the land area of California: the estuary alone covers almost 1,600 square miles. The Sacramento River drains all water from the lands south of Mount Shasta (near the Oregon border) down through the Central Valley to Sacramento, and the San Joaquin River – when it flows – carries water from the arid counties north of the LA sprawl up to join with the Sacramento. Together, the two rivers formed the Bay. For millenia, both rivers carried spring flood waters from the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada across their respective valleys, covering the land between the Sierras and California’s coastal mountainns with a deep layer of rich fertile soil. This ancent gift created the most productive soils in America. Though much of this priceless resource has been covered by sprawl, the remaining soil is rich enough to produce 30 Billion dollars in produce each year, generating 100 Billion dollars for California’s economy.

WTF does all this have to do with salmon? Well, salmon depend on healthy fresh water for the beginning of their lives – and to begin the next generation. Each new generation of salmon arises from eggs laid and fertilized by their parents, who beat their way back upstream to spawn – and then die – in the precise stretch of water where they hatched out. On the way upstream, the adult salmon stop eating: their bodies nourish them. The hatchlings chow down in fresh water, swim out to sea and fatten up, and return to fresh water a few years later to begin the cycle anew. Salmon are so tied into West Coast biology that the nutrients the adult fish carry upstream in their bodies nourish the forests surrounding spawning beds: the trees return the favor by shading streams, keeping the water cool enough so the eggs and hatchlings will survive. A salmon "run" is the group of salmon that hatch out in a given stream or river at a certain time of year. Although the California coast once supported runs all the way south to Santa Barbara, with abundant runs in every season, the last decades have seen so much habitat destruction and water diversion that only two large river systems – the Sacramento and the Klamath – are healthy enough to support commercial salmon fisheries.

Even those two systems are teetering. If "crashing salmon runs" in California seems like a repeat, you’re right. Federally subsidized alfalfa farmers on/around the Klamath Basin use more water than the Klamath can sustain. In 2002, Rove/Cheney intervened to divert scarce flows to the Klamath welfare farmers. Result? 70,000 salmon downstream died as the now-shallow Klamath overheated. This caused a partial shut down of Pacific Coast salmon fisheries in 2005-2006, with net costs in the tens of millions.

The Klamath salmon died on their way out to sea. The now-collapsed Sacramento RIver salmon run was healthy enough as the left the Sacramento RIver on the way to the ocean for their return date with last fall – but that run was decimated.

The chinook salmon runs in the Sacramento River are the second lowest ever recorded, and the 90,000 adult fish are only one-tenth the all-time high (800,000 recorded five years ago)

What do the salmon meet as they leave the Sacramento for the sea? Well, they meet the immense pumps that suck up fresh water from the San Francisco Bay estuary (aka the Delta) and pump it to water lawns and subsidized commodity crops – along with water for 20 million Californians.

The Sacramento River’s "missing salmon" were juveniles migrating to sea in spring 2005, when state and federal water managers "set records for pumping delta water south," said Mike Sherwood, an attorney with Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental legal group that has been jousting with water managers over water exports.

These pumps so damage the Delta’s aquasystems that last month a Federal judge ordered large decreases in the volume of water siphoned out of the Delta, in the hope of preventing extinction of several (non-salmon) fish species.

The court action comes too late for the Sacramento salmon run – and the thousands of fishermen and millions of families looking forward to this delicious gift. Yesterday – with the full agreement of West Coast fishermen – Federal officials proposed closure of the entire Sacramento salmon season. Early season fishing was ordered closed a few days ago.

We clever humans just crashed the biggest indicator species for half of all the land in California. As the salmon collapse, why should we expect to do better?

Bon appetit.

[NOTE: As with other eco-posts, this is NOT a Dem candidate thread. Comments about Dem candidates, why they suck/rule, what you and your household think about them – none of that is welcome here. For the next two hours, those so inclined can find another place on the net to park the fanboy advocacy and sniping. Neither that content nor those who insist on excreting it have a place in this discussion.]

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Kirk Murphy

Kirk Murphy

terrestrial obligate aerobe with endoskeleton (bony) and bilateral symmetry.

chordate, bipedal, warm-blooded, mammalian, placental (origin), opposable thumbs.

not (yet) extinct.

indigenous habitat: California Live Oak.

current habitat: Central California Coast (most northerly aspect).... 'northwest of the new world, east of the sea'

potential habitats: all potential habitats critically endangered (due to global climate change).

ailurophilic - hence allergic rhinitic.