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The Fish Terminator

by DAN BACHER

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger ramped up his campaign to build a peripheral canal and more water storage facilities with four major press conferences at San Luis Reservoir on July 16, Twitchell Island in the Delta on July 17, Long Beach on July 23 and San Diego on July 24.

His proposal for the canal – and more “research” on Delta smelt – drew intense criticism from Restore the Delta and fishing groups now battling to stop the collapse of Delta smelt and other fish populations, the result of increasing water exports in the past several years.

After taking a Delta tour with Department of Water Resources (DWR) officials and others in the Twitchell Island area on July 17, the Governor directed DWR to “take immediate action steps” to “improve conditions” in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, to help restore its natural habitat and “protect” the Delta smelt and other species.

“Today, I am calling for actions to help restore the Delta, the largest estuary on the West Coast and home to hundreds of native plant and animal species,” exhorted the Governor, trying to add a green veneer to his latest call for the canal and more water storage facilities. “The Delta is also one of the most vulnerable areas of our state. It faces dangers of contamination from a natural disaster or rising sea levels. And, we saw an example of its vulnerability when we had to shut off the pumps for nine days to protect the threatened Delta smelt.”

Appearing with the Governor at the “photo opportunity” were Lester Snow, director of the Department of Water Resources, Assemblyman Dave Cogdill, Assemblyman Guy Houston, Susan Kennedy, the Governor’s Chief of Staff, and others.

One of the “actions” he pinpointed was “to improve research on the Delta Smelt,” – completely ignoring the massive increases in water exports that state and federal scientists and conservationists consider to be the number one factor behind the dramatic decline in four Delta pelagic species – Delta smelt, longfin smelt, threadfin shad, and juvenile striped bass.

“State and federal agencies will upgrade and continue operation of a smelt culture laboratory,” he said.

In response to a question that I posed about what he was going to do to prevent delta smelt from becoming extinct, he responded, “We shut the pumps down 9 days this year. We are looking at various new technologies to employ so that the smelt won’t go through the pumps.”

Other actions that Schwarzenegger called for include preventing the spread of invasive species, screening Delta agricultural intakes to protect smelt, restoring North Delta habitat and improving Central Delta water flow patterns.

Schwarzenegger introduced his $5.9 billion water plan in January that invests $4.5 billion to develop additional surface and groundwater storage. The plan also includes $1 billion toward “restoration” of the Delta, including “development of a new conveyance system” – Schwarzenegger’s euphemism for the peripheral canal.

Ann Hayden of Environmental Defense provided the only dissonant note in the otherwise carefully choreographed love fest at Twitchell Island.

“Environmental Defense is encouraged that Governor Schwarzenegger is committed to moving forward on interim actions to restore habitat in the Delta,” said Hayden. “While this is a step in the right direction, more needs to be done. We hope the Governor will also take other immediate actions to help imperiled fisheries. Such actions include addressing the impacts that inadequate freshwater flows and high rates of export pumping are having on key species.”

Fishing groups, the Winnemem Wintu Tribe and the Restore the Delta Coalition – who weren’t invited to the Delta event – criticized the Governor’s Delta plan for failing to consider reductions in water exports or building effective fish screens on the Delta pumps.

“While several of these items including emergency preparedness and levee maintenance are endeavors that Restore the Delta supports,” said Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, Restore the Delta coordinator, “our supporters are stunned that the Governor, who recently said that water projects have been studied to death, is simply calling for more research on the Delta Smelt without taking more decisive action to save the fish from extinction.”

She said that first and foremost, fish screens need to be installed on the State Water Project pumps as mandated in the CalFed record of decision.

“While installing fish screens on state agricultural projects, as called for in the Governor’s directive, may help to protect some fish, Sherman and Twitchell Islands are not where the majority of Delta Smelt are being killed by pumping,” she pointed out. “While restoring natural habitat and improving Central Delta water flow patterns are productive steps, they will not bring about true restoration for the Delta without a reduction in water exports.”

She and other Delta residents also blasted the Governor for failing to back down from his mad drive to build a canal, even after having receiving intense criticism from a broad coalition of fishermen, farmers, Indian Tribes, conservationists and Delta residents that the building of the canal would mean the final destruction of a Delta ecosystem now in collapse.

“When one considers the environmental effects of diverting the last major source of fresh water from the Delta via a peripheral canal, it makes us wonder if these stated environmental mandates are nothing more than a smoke screen for the Governor’s special interest water plan,” she said.

Mark Franco, headman of the Winnemem Wintu (McCloud River) Tribe, said Schwarzenegger’s concept of building the peripheral canal and more water storage facilities to somehow “restore” the Delta goes against the very core of indigenous people’s concept of the earth.

“Traditional people see the earth in balance,” said Franco. “If you take something from the earth and don’t replace it, it takes everything out of balance. For example, our McCloud River salmon were introduced many years ago to New Zealand where they are now thriving, but the salmon are no longer in the McCloud. They shifted the balance – and the salmon are now in collapse.”

He said California Indian lands have been damaged, abused or taken away every time that a dam has been constructed. For example. Shasta Dam flooded the traditional villages and sacred sites of the Winnemem Wintu – and the tribe has never been compensated or mitigated for the destruction since the dam has been built.

The proposed raising of Shasta Dam, which the tribe adamantly opposes because it would flood the tribe’s remaining sacred sites, is an integral part of state and federal government plans to increase water exports out of the Delta via the peripheral canal.

“The rivers are the arteries of the earth,” he noted. “Building more dams and a peripheral canal to save the Delta is like putting a tourniquet on your arm and leaving it there. If you don’t take it off, you will die.”

In fact, Franco believes that the two humpback whales that swam up the Sacramento River to the Port of Sacramento in May were there for a purpose – and not “lost” as the major media reported.

“The whales came up the river to tell us what was going on in the Delta at a time that the Delta smelt were dying in the hundreds in the state and federal pumps,” said Franco. “The whales started to get sick in freshwater. But when the state finally shut down its pumps, the whales then miraculously recovered and headed down to the ocean. All of this time, our tribe was singing whale songs just like our relations on the coast do.”

Bill Jennings, executive director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, blasted the governor’s Delta plan as being “a smokescreen masking a proposal for massive increase of northern California water for desert farms in the south state.”

“Schwarzenegger is asking the taxpayers to buy something, the peripheral canal, without being willing to show us what he is asking us to buy,” said Jennings. “We really don’t know anything about the canal – its size, its capacity and its operating parameters. He could care less about the Delta and sees it only as a nuisance standing in the way of increased exports.”

The Governor has promoted his “green” image in the media by talking about global warming and pushing a controversial series of “marine protected areas” on an already overregulated recreational and commercial fishing industry while ignoring any substantial environmental initiatives that will impact his corporate campaign contributors. Yet he is pushing for a canal that will result in the destruction of the most important estuary on the West Coast.

“Schwarzenegger is as green as a silk plant,” quipped Barrigan-Parrilla. “When you get up close, you realize that is all a big fake.”

DAN BACHER writes about politics and the environment. He can be reached at: danielbacher@fishsniffer.com



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