Recently, the Trump administration (Department of Justice and Department of the Interior) filed a lawsuit against the state of California (the State Water Resources Control Board) for its alleged violations of the California Environmental Quality Act, the state’s broadest environmental law. The specifics of the lawsuit are misleading, but, broadly speaking, the Trump administration is suing California for its decision to increase flows for the Stanislaus, Tuolumne, and Merced rivers (San Joaquin River tributaries), directly improving migrating salmonids’ spawning opportunities.

A Californian Chinook. Photo curtesy of Lisa Thompson, UC Davis

California, back in December, amended its Water Quality Control Plan for the San Francisco Bay/Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta Estuary, to set a 40% flow standard for the three tributaries. This action was an attempt to prop up the diminishing regional stocks of wild chinook salmon: “the number of adult salmon returning to the San Joaquin basin plummeted from 70,000 in 1984 to a mere 10,000 in 2017,” according to the Natural Resource Defense Council.

But then why is the Federal Government going after California for attempting to protect its dwindling chinook salmon? According to the Department of Justice lawsuit–filed March, 28th–California is being sued because of the amendments’ potential impacts to the New Melones Project among other procedural issues. The New Melones Project entails a 625 foot tall (above stream-bed) dam and an electrical generating capacity of 322,596,000 kWh or “the equivalent of 72,000 households”; the project’s primary function, according to the Bureau Reclamation, “is flood control”.

A picture of New Melones dam, curtesy of U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

It will be interesting to see how the federal court decides. Especially, given a 2018 9th Circuit decision, which “ordered three federal agencies to release water from eight hydroelectric dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers to ease the spring migrations of endangered salmon and steelhead to the ocean”.

We will be sure to keep you all updated on this legal battle. Hopefully, the litigating parties can settle quickly and come to some agreement that assists the spawning chinook. Urgency is important, because spawning activity will begin shortly and continue into the summer. The age of dams has been incalculably destructive to our fisheries and environments. Fish need water to complete their life cycle and spawn, but current conditions are barring the complete restoration of the San Joaquin river’s chinook.