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Report Documents Record Delta Water Exports and Massive Fish Kills

Carnage in the Pumps

by DAN BACHER

A report written by Geir Aasen of the California Department of Fish and Game documents the massive numbers of fish salvaged at the federal Central Valley Project’s Tracy Fish Collection Facility (TFCF) and the State Water Projects’s Skinner Delta Fish Protective Facility (SDFPF) during the 2011 water year, as well as the record amounts of water exported to corporate agribusiness and southern California by the state and federal projects.

The report  appeared in the Interagency Ecological Program for the San Francisco Estuary Newsletter, Fall/Winter 2012 edition.

The State Water Project reported record high water exports, 4.90 billion cubic meters of water, the highest export rate recorded since 1981, the report stated. The federal Central Valley Project exported 3.13 billion cubic meters of water, an increase from exports in 2008-2011, but comparable to exports from 2002 to 2007.

Translated into acre feet, the annual export total via the state and federal Delta pumps was 6,520,000 acre-feet in 2011 – 217,000 acre-feet more than the previous record of 6,303,000 acre-feet set in 2005.

“Annual fish salvage (all species combined) at the TFCF (federal) was high (8,724,498), but well below the record high salvage of 37,659,835 in 2006,” according to the report. “Annual salvage at the SDFPF (state) was 3,0092,553, an increase from 2007 to 2010 which ranged from 646,290 to 2,484,282.”

When you combine the fish “salvaged” in the state and federal facilities, the total count is 11,817,051 fish of all species.

“Splittail were the most salvaged species at both facilities,” the report said. “Threadfin shad (591,111) and American shad (100,233) were the 2nd and 3rd most salvaged fish at TFCF. American shad (558,731) and striped bass (507,619) were the 2nd and 3rd most-salvaged fish at SDFPF. Relatively few Chinook salmon, steelhead, delta smelt and longfin smelt were salvaged at the SDFPF (<8=0.7% of total annual salvage combined) and the TFCF (<0.3% of total annual salvage.)”

The total splittail salvage was 7,660,024 in the federal facilities and 1,326,065 in the state facilities, a total of 8,986,089 fish, nearly 9 million splittail and a new salvage record for the species. The fish, formerly listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), is no longer listed.

Conservation organizations first petitioned for federal ESA protection for splittail in 1992 and the species was listed as threatened in 1999. After litigation by water agencies challenging the listing, the Bush administration improperly removed the splittail from the threatened list, despite strong consensus by agency scientists and fisheries experts that it should retain protected status.

The Center for Biological Diversity sued, and the Fish and Wildlife Service agreed to revisit the tainted Bush-era decision. The critically endangered splittail was again denied Endangered Species Protection by the Obama administration in October 2010, in spite of an analysis of splittail population trends by the Bay Institute showing that there has been a significant decline in the abundance of splittail during the past several decades.

The total chinook salmon salvage in the state facilities was 18,830 and the federal facilities was 18,135, a total of 36,965 fish. While the report says that is “relatively few” salmon, fish advocates note that this is still a lot of wild spring run and fall run salmon.

The report says record low numbers of Delta smelt, 51, were salvaged at the federal facilities, while no Delta smelt were salvaged at the state facilities for the first time recorded for 1981 to 2011. Salvage was also low in 2010 (22).

The report breaks down the total amount of fish salvaged by species in a number of charts and graphs.

CWIN, Winnemem Wintu Tribe and GGSA respond to report

After reading the report, Carolee Krieger, president of the California Water Impact Network, commented, “It’s outrageous that the greed of a few growers, who are irrigating poisoned land south of the Delta on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley, is causing this unnecessary fish kill. At the same time, these growers have the most junior water rights in the state of California.”

Caleen Sisk, Chief and Spiritual Leader of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe, emphasized that the “salvaged” salmon mentioned in the report are only a fraction of the total number of salmon that die in the state and federal pumping facilities.

“It seems to me that when a DFG report claims that they only counted 36,965 salmon, which they claim represents ‘relatively few,’  there still remains the gross ‘uncounted and uncountable’ and ‘underestimated’ numbers of salmon that die in the pumps yearly that is not addressed,” Sisk said. “This should be a major concern in the report when the over all return of all wild salmon are on a steady, clear decline.  Where is the report that evaluates the health of the estuary from these huge unnecessary fish kills?”

“There seems to be enough studies that verifies the Delta pumps are killing the fish by the millions and they are the reason our water to ocean system is dying,” she stated. “An estuary is like a beaver pond, it is a sacred pool that brings life! We call a beaver pond “k’Od Bisus” (giver of life). Man cannot make an “estuary,” –  after such damage, all water systems will respond and change. This is a major concern of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe who sing and dance for the return of salmon to the McCloud River.”

“The salmon are the indicators of how healthy the water systems are from the high mountain waters to the oceans and back again. There should be better safeguard for such an irreplaceable ‘public trust’ asset that provides water for all.  This is not about ‘money’ or  ’who gets the water’ - it is about how an estuary and salmon surviving corporate greed,” concluded Sisk.

“The pumps continue to kill our salmon at alarming rates,” responded Victor Gonella, President of the Golden Gate Salmon Association (GGSA). “Thanks to the hard work of many, we do have the biological opinions in place to reduce pumping slightly in critical times of migration. We must all remain steadfast to insure the biops are adhered to and push for further pumping reductions in the future.”

Bay Institute report documents carnage in the pumps

In March, the Bay Institute released a ground breaking report titled “Collateral Damage” revealing the enormous numbers of fish that are “salvaged” by the state and federal pumps on the South Delta every year.

The report revealed that the record number of any fish salvaged in one year, 13,541,203, was set by striped bass. The annual “salvage” numbers for striped bass from 1993 to 2011 averaged a horrendous 1,773,079 fish.

The report said the average salvage total for all species is 9,237,444 fish, including  striped bass, splittail and threadfin shad, as well as ESA listed Sacramento River chinook salmon, Central Valley steelhead, Delta smelt, green sturgeon, and longfin smelt. Over 42 species have been recorded in the state and federal pumping faclities.

However, salvage numbers are only the “tip of the iceberg” of the total fish lost in the pumping facilities. “Salvage numbers drastically underestimate the actual impact,” according to the Bay Institute. “Although the exact numbers are uncertain, it is clear that tens of millions of fish are killed each year, and only a small fraction of this is reflected in the salvage numbers that are reported.”

A conservative estimate (Kimmerer, 2008) is that, for juvenile salmon that have been pulled towards the pumps, only 1 in 5 will survive long enough to be counted in salvage (the rest are lost to predators or other factors), resulting in an overall loss of up to 10% of the migrating fish (Castillo, 2010). Another study of “pre-screen loss” estimated that as many as 19 of every 20 fish perished before being counted (Castillo, 2010).

“The fact is, the salvage numbers look really bad but the real impact of export-related mortality is probably far worse,” the report added.

You can download the Bay Institute’s report, Collateral Damage, by going to: http://bay.org/publications/collateral-damage).

While this massive carnage takes place in the Delta pumps every year, the Brown administration is fast-tracking the construction of the peripheral canal or tunnel through the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP). The canal is likely to lead to the extinction of Central Valley steelhead, Sacramento River chinook salmon, Delta smelt, longfin smelt, green sturgeon, Sacramento splittail and other species.

Dan Bacher can be reached at: Danielbacher@fishsniffer.com