WITH wading boots and walking stick, Scott Downie sloshes up Little Sprowel Creek, grousing aloud why West Coast salmon have been depleted by 80 to 90 percent since 1945:
"Dams, logging, roads, and cattle grazing have blocked, altered or otherwise helped fill spawning streams like this with silt," says the fish habitat supervisor with the California State Department of Fish and Game.
Such development, along with lopsided water allotments that favor farms (85 percent) over cities and streams have this year brought salmon, by most accounts, to the brink of irreversible crisis.
"The whole West Coast is at a crossroads for salmon right now," says Mr. Downie. In April, federal regulators imposed unprecedented restrictions on this year's commercial harvest, including a ban on fishing from Mendocino County to central Oregon.
Drought-heightened water wars between agricultural users, cities, and industry have already reduced two species of salmon, the Sacramento River winter-run chinook and the Snake River sockeye, to threatened or endangered levels. Others are under consideration for listing. Legislation pending
In faraway Washington, Congressional legislation that could reform the California Central Valley Project (CVP), the huge federally-operated water system that divvies up the state's water, is on the line this week. Observers say the future of California salmon rests in the balance.
"The vote [on the CVP] water reforms will decide whether California salmon survive or simply disappear," says William Kier, a natural-resources consultant based in San Francisco.
Reform legislation sponsored by House Interior Committee chairman George Miller (D) of California passed the House last week and has moved to a House and Senate conference committee as part of a broad package of Western water development proposals. The final form of the bill is expected by July 4.
The Central Valley Project is the largest supplier of water in the state (about 40 percent), capturing runoff in dams on the San Joaquin, Trinity, Sacramento, American, and Stanislaus rivers - then parceling to farms and cities from Redding to Bakersfield.
The measure as passed by the House would dramatically alter the way state water is allotted, redirecting supplies away from agriculture to both cities and environmental needs. It would also introduce a limited form of water marketing, by which users could trade or sell their water allotment.
In the conference with House and Senate members, several issues need to be ironed out: quantities of water for fish and wildlife; the lengths of irrigation contracts; specific rules on water sales and prices.
California's Republican Sen. John Seymour wants contracts for a longer period of time and to prohibit the United States Secretary of the Interior from taking water from farmers to meet fish and wildlife needs. And Central Valley farmers are pushing their Congressional delegation to provide far less than the 1.5 million acre-feet of water environmentalists seek, and to diminish wildlife protection funds from $30 million to $8 million per year.
"If the San Joaquin irrigators have their way, the salmon resource will rapidly disappear," says Mr. Kier.
Meanwhile, the Pacific Fisheries Management Council's April decision, which imposed tough restrictions on fishing along the entire coasts of California, Oregon, and Washington, means economic disaster for many commercial fishermen who depend on salmon to carry them through the year.
"A lot of salmon fishermen are looking to move into new employment altogether," says Nat Bingham, a salmon fisherman from Ft. Bragg, where one of the state's largest fleets of salmon trollers is idle. "They can't afford the time for the state to rebuild its water resources. They are still in shock."
Beyond sport, food, commercial and aesthetic reasons, Kier, Downie and others say the health of salmon is a "canary-in-the-mine-shaft" indicator of the ultimate well-being of the environment.
Because salmon migrate from river headwaters through estuaries to the sea and back, they are the ultimate gauge of man's performance as a steward of land and water resources.
To help matters here at Sprowel Creek, a tributary to the South Fork of the Eel river, once one of California's key salmon regions, the department of Fish and Game has tried since 1988 to reverse the fish's decline with a combination of management and stream reconstruction efforts.
That has included propagating new stocks and physically modifying stream flows and embankment canopies to provide both clear, cool water, and protection from natural predators.
But as the destruction of salmon habitat continues, their numbers dwindle.
Earlier this month, scientists found that one-third of this year's winter-run chinook salmon young in the Sacramento River were sucked into pumps operated in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta by state and federal water projects.
The National Marine Fisheries Service estimated between 4,000 and 14,000 young winter-run salmon were killed at the Delta pumping stations. Last year, only 191 of the threatened fish - once popular for sport fishing - made it up the river to spawn.
The fishery council's decision was driven by the plight of the Klamath River, whose salmon stocks have suffered a severe decline. The Klamath, which runs from southern Oregon and the Trinity Mountains of California into the Pacific Ocean near Crescent City, have been an important contributor to the fish catch off Northern California and much of Oregon.
This year, however, only an estimated 31,000 salmon are expected to return up the river to spawn - fewer than the 35,000 minimum the council said is needed for the fishery to survive.
Fishermen and environmentalists blame the Klamath's problems in part on the diversion of water by the CVP from the coastal river system through the mountains where it joins the Sacramento River and is pumped south to farmers and city dwellers. Bill could help
If the Congressional bill currently in conference is passed with the House version substantially intact, observers say improvements could be seen as early as next spring in the Sacramento and San Joaquin river basins.
Besides redirecting substantial quantities of water needed for wildlife, the bill would put fish and wildlife on an equal footing with agriculture as an authorized "purpose" of the project. It would make 100,000 acre-feet of water available for urban and industrial use, and require that the project double fish populations by the year 2002.