The Bay-Delta Estuary and its Fisheries are in Crisis! 

The San Francisco Bay-Delta Estuary and its fisheries are in crisis due to multiple impacts driven largely by the operation of the State and Federal water projects that have significantly altered the estuary’s ecosystem. Massive declines in the aquatic ecosystem‘s productivity have caused the collapse of many of its fisheries. Runs of salmon, steelhead, and sturgeon have been listed under the Endangered Species Acts as either threatened or in danger of becoming extinct. The striped bass fishery has declined from 4 million adult fish to 300,000 adult fish over the last 20 years! The estuary’s tributary rivers have been significantly impaired and many fish and aquatic wildlife populations are at dangerously low levels.

The estuary’s web of life is under siege from habitat degradation, invasive species, the impacts caused by water diversions and chemical contaminant exposure from agricultural run off that flows to delta. As important as these habitat impacts are, they are made absolutely devastating to our estuary’s fisheries by the exporting of massive amounts of water from the delta and have placed the Bay-Delta Estuary in a prolonged ecosystem collapse.

The Environmental standards that State Water Resources Control Board has established to protect the fresh water flows through the Delta to the ocean are woefully insufficient to protect delta fisheries and their food supplies. The agency allows some six million acre feet per year of the delta’s water to be exported to Central Valley Corporate Agriculture (83%) and human consumption (17%). Over half of the estuary’s waters now flow south instead of west to the Ocean.

Export restrictions set by the Water Board do not protect fisheries that rely on the delta or their food supply from being exported from the Delta. The direct effects of low outflow and high exports significantly impact the estuary by reducing the productivity of the food web necessary to sustain the public’s fisheries resource.  

The tragic decline of the our fishery resources and aquatic habitat is result of the combined effect of “multiple stressors” on the ecosystem that include:

(a) The impacts from water project operations that export some 5 to 6 million acre feet of water out of the estuary every year and in the processes destroys hundreds of million of salmon, striped bass, steelhead, black bass, and numerous forage species annually ever since the Federal and State projects came on line during the 1950s and 60s.

(b) The lack of appropriately timed river flows in proper amounts and temperatures to sustain the estuary’s ecosystem and fisheries;

(c) The impacts of toxic pollution and their effects to the delta’s aquatic ecosystem;

(d) The unintentionally introduced invasive clams & zooplankton species from the ballast water of cargo ships plying the estuary;

We no longer have a dynamic estuary ecosystem with appropriate river flows, tidal influences, wetland salt marshes and the natural habitat required for salmon, delta smelt, sturgeon, steelhead, black bass and striped bass populations to survive, recover and thrive. This is why most of these fish populations have declined to extremely low levels and caused the delta smelt to be listed under the Endangered Species Act in an effort prevent their extinction.

The predominant cause of this decline is the massive development and export of water from the delta and its tributaries. The only way to recover and restore the ecosystem productivity of the delta is to rectify the hydrologic and water quality impacts that have resulted from water development and export from the Central Valley Rivers and the delta.

The federal Central Valley Project Improvement Act was passed by Congress in 1992. Among its primary purposes was the mandate to double the populations of anadromous fisheries (salmon, steelhead, striped bass, American shad & sturgeon) of the Central Valley. Twenty-four years later none of these fisheries are anywhere near having their populations doubled. State legislation has also promised but failed to increase anadromous fish populations. Both State and Federal water contracting processes have promised to deliver more water than was surplus to the needs of the estuary’s ‘area of origin beneficial uses’ as required by law. The over subscribing our water supplies for export is the fundamental culprit of the collapse of the estuary’s ecological productivity and the decline of its fisheries.

The Delta requires restoration now! Exports must be reduced by several million acre feet annually, or more, if the estuary is to begin to make ecological recovery and become sustainable. This can be done by increasing regional water self-sufficiency based on the adoption of best water conservation practices and the principle that the people of our state must live within the limits of our natural resources. Failure to significantly improve the estuary’s hydrologic regime will further destroy the estuary’s fisheries that are owned collectively by the public. The current decline has already cost our local and statewide economy hundreds of millions of dollars annually, devastating parts of the delta’s economy and that of our State’s sport and commercial fishing industries.