SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – California’s age-old conflicts over water have been renewed in a confrontation between environmentalists and farmers over the fate of Steelhead salmon in the Carmel River, whose numbers have fallen sharply due to diversion of the natural river run in order to grow crops.
The Sierra Club and Carmel River Steelhead Association say that despite their fish rescue efforts, they cannot “prevent the death of an unknown but presumably large number of juvenile steelhead that perish as flows decline to level at which rescues occur, or that avoid capture.”
The groups say that California American is only allowed to divert 3,376 acre-feet from this critical steelhead habitat, but they have been diverting up to 10,000 acre-feet annually. “There are of course other causes to the declining steelhead population,” said lead attorney Laurens Silver with the California Environmental Law Project of Mill Valley. “But we believe, and everyone concedes, that the reason behind the major decline has been the diversions.”
In 1995, the State Water Resources Control Board found that as urban demand for water increased, “wells drilled into the Carmel Valley alluvium aquifer were added to supplement supply,” leading to decreased river water levels and the death of many juvenile steelhead. The board concluded that “Cal-Am was diverting water unlawfully from the Carmel River,” and has since imposed constraints on the company, issuing a cease and desist order that Silver called “ineffective.”
Silver said that this year, adult steelhead returns were only 95, down from 500 in past years, although there have been as few as 15 returns during periods of critical drought. “The National Fishery Service has made a determination that the steelhead has a high likelihood of becoming extinct, and our expert agrees,” Silver said.
The groups request an order forcing California American to reduce its Carmel River diversions to the level necessary to preserve the steelhead.
“To ask that they cease diverting altogether would be unrealistic, so we’re asking for a 25 percent reduction,” Silver said.