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Is Delta Pumping Driving Salmon and Orca Decline?

by DAN BACHER

Increases in freshwater exports out of the California Delta, the operation of Shasta Dam and other inland habitat problems have not only led to the collapse of Central Valley salmon populations, but also threaten the southern resident killer whale population.

These were the conclusions of National Marine Fisheries Service scientists disclosed during a frank discussion of the recently released rewritten draft biological opinion on the impacts of the state and federal water projects during a meeting in Sacramento with representatives of fishing and environmental groups organized by Richard Pool, coordinator of Water for Fish. The NMFS opinion currently concludes “jeopardy” for winter run chinook salmon, spring run chinook salmons, green sturgeon and the southern resident killer whale species.

As a result of litigation by NRDC, Earthjustice and fishing groups, a federal judge ruled that the previous biological opinion violated the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The court ordered the agency directed to issue a new opinion by March of 2009 – and the draft opinion was released in December 2008.

The Opinion also concludes the water projects would likely result in the “adverse modification” or “destruction of critical habitat for the three salmon species.” Jeopardy and adverse modifications indicate that the Operating Criteria and Plan (OCAP) process cannot move forward as planned.

Their conclusion that increased water exports play a key role in the decline of salmon, sturgeon and killer whales is in direct contrast to the politically motivated claims by the Bush and Schwarzenegger administations last year that “ocean conditions” caused the collapse.

Staggering losses of salmon and steelhead smolts take place in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, according to the scientists. Indirect losses in the Central Delta were found to be far more significant than losses from direct entrainment at the state and federal pumps on the South Delta. When the cross channel gates on the Sacramento River in the North Delta are open, 65% of the juveniles perish as they are drawn into the Delta interior. When the gates are closed, more than 50% survive.

At the pumps themselves, only 16.5% of the juveniles survive at the state facility operated by the Department of Water Resources and only 35% survive at the federal pumps operated by the Bureau of Reclamation. Once fish are pulled into Clifton Court Forebay, nearly all of them are lost. The net total loss in the Delta is approximately 60% of the fish entering the system. This number does not include those lost prior to getting to the Delta.

Another alarming conclusion of the biologists is that “endangered steelhead survival out of the San Joaquin is near zero,” with flows and predation being major problems. Much of the mortality by the San Joaquin out migrants is caused by the negative flows in Old and Middle rivers. Fish are unable to move to the North Delta because of these southward moving “reverse” flows.

The scenario portrayed by the scientists is very similar to that revealed by Frank Fisher, a now retired DFG fishery biologist, when he documented in 1991-92 the direct correlation between the increase in Delta exports and the decline of Sacramento River salmon. He documented a “Black Hole of Death” that occurred to migrating salmon smolts in the Delta, due to reverse flows, stranding and entrainment of fish in the pumps caused by increased water exports. Considered a “maverick” at the time, Fisher’s data and conclusions have been vindicated by the draft biological opinion.

Overall, when the Sacramento River survival of 20% is combined with the Delta survival of 40%, only 8% of the smolts make it to the West Delta!

The biological opinion also documents the major contribution of high water temperatures on the Upper Sacramento to spawning and egg mortality, as well as the staggering loss of juveniles – 80 percent – between Red Bluff and the Delta.

Not only do Delta exports hurt salmon, steelhead and sturgeon populations, but they are driving the southern resident population of killer whales to the edge of extinction. Less than 90 whales are left in a population that depends heavily upon Sacramento River spring, fall and winter run chinook salmon for forage. If the salmon go extinct, so will the killer whales (orcas).

Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, emphasized that the plight of the killer whales posed by the salmon collapse shows how both healthy hatchery and wild populations of salmon must be increased.

“The decline of the whales gives us a strong basis to protect the Central Valley fall chinook run,” noted Grader. “The whales don’t distinguish between wild and hatchery salmon or between winter, spring and fall run fish. We should provide protection not just to ESA listed species including winter run and spring salmon, but also make sure that there is maximum hatchery fall fish production.”

Orcas can grow to 32 feet in length and weigh as much as 18,000 pounds, according to NMFS. The southern resident killer whales are the significant population in the Northwest Region of the U.S. These whales are the “resident” type, spending specific periods each year in the San Juan Islands and Puget Sound, but also range along the California coast down to Monterey. The southern residents feed mostly on salmon.

Scientists who participated in the meeting include Rod McInnis, the Regional Director of NMFS, Maria Rea, the Sacramento Area Office Supervisor of NMFS, Russ Strach, the Assistant Director of Protected Species for NMFS, Churchill Grimes, the Director of Fisheries Ecology of NMFS, Bruce McFarlane, Research Scientist for NMFS, Bruce Oppenheim, Biologist for the Upper Sacramento NMFS office, Jeff Stuart, the NMFS Biologist for the Delta, Chris Yates, Long Beach Protected Resources Division of NMFS, John McCamman, Chief Deputy Director of the Calif. Department of Fish and Game, Neil Manji, Chief of Fisheries for the DFG, and Dan Castleberry, Regional Fisheries Program Manager, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The conclusions of the federal scientists are backed up by the data and conclusions included in recently released reports by the Natural Resources Defense Council, Environmental Defense and California Trout. Yes, ocean conditions may be a factor in salmon and steelhead declines, but it is Delta water exports, other water diversions and freshwater habitat problems that have put salmon and steelhead populations on the brink of extinction.

President Obama has pledged to break with the political manipulation of science practiced under the previous administration. The frank and open discussion by NMFS scientists about the causes of salmon, green sturgeon and killer whale declines during the stakeholders meeting was a promising start.

The evidence of the role of Delta water exports and other freshwater factors in the decline of salmon, green sturgeon and killer whales is inescapable now – and it’s time for the state and federal governments, in cooperation with environmental groups, commercial fishing organizations, recreational fishing groups and Indian Tribes – to begin the long road to recovery.

We must stop the attempt by the Department of Water Resources and Bureau of Reclamation to suspend Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections for Delta smelt. We must also defeat legislation by Congressman George Radanovich (R-Mariposa), H.R. 856, to temporarily suspend the ESA as it applies to the California pumping facilities during times of “drought” emergencies declared by the Governor. And we must stop the campaign by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Senator Dianne Feinstein and the Nature Conservancy to build a peripheral canal and more dams!

Here is the complete report on the NMFS meeting from Richard Pool, coordinator of Water for Fish:
http://www.calsport.org/2-13-09b.htm#

For more information about what you can do to save Central valley salmon, southern resident killer whales and the Delta, go to www.calsport.org, www.water4fish.org and www.restorethedelta.org.

DAN BACHER can be reached at: Danielbacher@fishsniffer.com

 

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Dan Bacher is an environmental journalist in Sacramento. He can be reached at: Dan Bacher danielbacher@fishsniffer.com.

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