Despite decades of effort costing taxpayers more than $1 billion, the regulatory agencies charged with improving the health of salmon populations in California’s Central Valley have made little impact on a problem that continues to jeopardize the state’s fragile water supply and undermine its economy, according to a new report.

The report was produced by AECOM, a global consulting firm, is available at the San Joaquin Tributaries Authority (SJTA) website at http://calsmartwater.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/Recover-Planning-Review-Final_050412-CLEAN.pdf.

The report was commissioned by the Salmon Recovery Group, a coalition of water interest groups working together to better understand and develop comprehensive solutions to the challenges facing California’s salmon population. The Salmon Recovery Group includes the SJTA, State and Federal Water Contractors Agency (SWFCA), and Northern California Water Association (NCWA).

In a review of the complex web of regulation governing salmon management, the report concludes that the primary agencies charged with restoring the imperiled fishery are falling short because of conflicting goals, inconsistent strategies, the absence of performance measures to gauge success, and an overall lack of coordination, according to the coalition.

“Our members have made significant investments in the recovery of native salmon populations and we are committed to working toward a sustainable long-term plan,” said Allen Short, executive director of the SJTA and general manager of the Modesto Irrigation District. “But this report is disturbing, because it shows a level of mismanagement – and waste of taxpayer dollars – that raise serious doubts about regulators’ ability to chart a productive course in the future.”

As the study notes, there is no Central Valley anadromous salmonid stock that is not listed under state or federal endangered species statutes or considered a “species of concern” by one or more agencies today.

While six state and federal agencies have a role in managing salmon resources in marine and freshwater environments of California, the study focuses on the three that have primary responsibility for restoration – the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), and California Department of Fish Game (CDFG).

“None of the three restoration plans reviewed adequately provide a clear and succinct strategy for recovering Central Valley anadromous salmonid stocks to viable and sustainable levels,” according to the report. “The principal reason is that these plans were prepared by different agencies for different purposes largely independent of one another. This has led to numerous inconsistencies and disconnects among the three plans.”

Problems identified

Among the problems identified by the study are:

• Disagreement on basic recovery actions. The CDFG, in particular, was consistently out-of-sync with the federal agencies. Of the 76 total recovery actions identified by the CDFG, for example, less than 12 percent overlapped with actions proposed by NMFS, and 14.5 percent overlapped with the USFWS.

• Conflict between agency recovery goals. Ignoring fall and late fall-run Chinook for comparative purposes, the minimum recovery goals for NMFS and for the USFWS and CDFG conflict, with targets ranging from a doubling of the salmon population to de-listing of the fishery as endangered.

• No evaluations of the population-level benefits of recovery actions. While evaluating the population-level benefits of specific actions in concert with other actions on a specific stream may be difficult, it’s a critical step from a cost/benefit perspective and for setting priorities based on the expected return.

• No consistent timeline for implementing or completing conservation actions.

Failure to identify a long-term funding source for recovery projects.

Absence of integrated performance measures to gauge the success or failure of actions.

The report does identify some achievements made by the agencies, noting, for instance, that the listing status for the Central Valley salmon population has remained unchanged despite population growth, habitat degradation and other dynamics.

But, as the study notes, “holding steady does not lead to recovery, and if a more comprehensive coordinated approach is not taken, it would appear that the resource agencies will continue developing independent management strategies,” leaving California’s salmon at risk.

To avoid that fate, the report’s experts say, all agencies responsible for management of anadromous fish in the Central Valley need to be under the same “restoration umbrella,” working from the same, science-based blueprint  – one that outlines a clear strategy with specific objectives.

Members of the San Joaquin Tributaries Authority include Modesto Irrigation District, Turlock Irrigation District, Oakdale Irrigation District, Merced Irrigation District, the City and County of San Francisco, and the South San Joaquin Irrigation District.