Recovering Central Valley’s Salmon & Steelhead

New plan lays framework for restoring region’s historically abundant wild fish runs

Summer 2014

Millions of wild salmon and steelhead once returned each year to spawn in the foothill and mountain streams surrounding California’s Central Valley. Fed by rainfall, snowmelt, and coldwater springs, these streams fostered diverse and abundant Chinook salmon and steelhead runs. The mid-1800s ushered in sweeping changes to the landscape that led many species to the brink of extinction, including: Sacramento River winter-run Chinook salmon, Central Valley spring-run Chinook salmon, and Central Valley steelhead. Gold mining, dam construction, water and hydropower development, and other land uses hindered fish populations from thriving in the Central Valley. By 1989, Sacramento River winter-run Chinook was listed under the Endangered Species Act as a threatened species, but was soon reclassified as endangered in 1994. Central Valley steelhead and spring-run Chinook followed suit in 1998 and 1999, respectively, becoming federally listed as threatened species.

spring chinook

Today, there is a path to recovery. A concerted effort among NOAA Fisheries, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, additional agencies, and the public culminated in NOAA Fisheries’ development and release of a federal plan to recover Central Valley’s listed salmon and steelhead runs. The plan provides a road map to recover these species with the goal of removing them from the Endangered Species List. With science at its foundation, the plan identifies clear priorities to guide recovery efforts in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and its watersheds. It also provides a framework for targeting conservation efforts and modifying on-the-ground actions based on new science and changing circumstances.

Fully recovering the region’s salmon runs may seem daunting. To guide this effort, a comprehensive assessment was conducted to prioritize both recovery actions and the watersheds in which to concentrate these efforts. This prioritization allows us to efficiently address the major threats these species currently face, like water withdrawals, loss of quality rearing habitat, and barriers that block fish from spawning habitat. Based on these tailored priorities, key recovery actions include activities such as providing fish-friendly water flows and temperatures in rivers, reconnecting rivers to their floodplains, and developing phased species reintroduction plans for specific watersheds.

Water originating from the Central Valley is used to irrigate roughly four million acres of farmland and provide drinking water to 22 million people. This demand on a limited water supply presents a considerable challenge for salmon and steelhead recovery, especially in years of extreme drought such as this. Efforts to conserve water and use it more efficiently will benefit both fish and people. NOAA Fisheries is working with state and federal agencies on short-term and long-term solutions. To ensure the needs of listed fish are balanced with those of farmers and citizens during the current drought, watershed priorities established in the recovery plan are guiding decisions about the amount and timing of water releases and diversions. Over the long-term, the plan calls for the adoption of the state’s water conservation program, which seeks to reduce consumption rates by 2020. As state and federal agencies work to find sound solutions to California’s water woes, individual citizens can play an important role by implementing water conserving practices in their homes and businesses. To learn how you can personally help conserve water, please visit the following resources:

Investments in salmon and steelhead recovery will result in economic, societal, and ecological benefits. The California commercial and recreational salmon fisheries, for instance, currently are estimated to generate $118 to $279 million in income annually and provide roughly two to three thousand jobs. These figures will increase as salmon runs increase, providing both economic gains and more recreational fishing opportunities. In addition, many of the actions identified in the recovery plan are designed to improve the natural processes of the watersheds, which will benefit native plants and animals as well.

The recovery plan complements the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Ecosystem Restoration Program Conservation Strategy, which focuses on restoring aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems throughout the Central Valley. Both the federal and state plans were developed in close coordination between state and federal partners, and share the common goal of recovering the Central Valley’s salmon and steelhead. To put these plans into action, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife is providing $38 million this summer to fund projects that restore habitat, promote salmon and steelhead recovery, and protect populations important to California’s recreational and commercial fisheries.

Recovering these iconic fish will require collective action among all partners. The recovery plan, together with the state’s Conservation Strategy and generous funding, sets the foundation for the successful recovery of Sacramento River winter-run Chinook salmon, Central Valley spring-run Chinook salmon, and Central Valley steelhead.

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Photos by Lance Kruzic