Death in the Delta

For the second day in a row, the state and federal water project pumps in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta have taken over 500,000 Sacramento splittail, a native minnow species found only in the Central Valley and Delta.

The Bureau of Reclamation “salvage” report on May 17 recorded 525,260 splittail entrained in the federal Central Valley Project pumps and 5,355 in the State Water Project pumps.

On the same day, the agency counted 424 spring run chinook salmon in the federal pumps and 140 in the state facilities.

On May 16, the “salvage” report counted 546,668 Sacramento splittail taken at the CVP pumps and 10,028 splittail at the State Water Project pumps. The agency reported 256 chinook salmon at the federal pumps and 546 salmon at the state pumps in the South Delta the same day.

Over 1 million imperiled Sacramento splittail have been taken over the past two days and over 11,000 threatened Sacramento River spring-run chinook have perished in the “death pumps” of the California Delta since the beginning of the year. The pumps divert water from the Delta, the largest and most significant estuary on the West Coast of the Americas, to irrigate drainage-impaired land operated by agribusiness corporations on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley and to supply Southern California water agencies.

The alarming news comes amidst fierce debate over federal legislation, sponsored by Congressional supporters of subsidized agribusiness corporations in the San Joaquin Valley, that would exempt export pumping to agribusiness and southern California water agencies from Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections for salmon and other fish.

“State and federal water-project pumps are pushing already-struggling salmon and native fish populations closer to extinction while Republican lawmakers are introducing legislation to eliminate environmental protections for the devastated Bay-Delta ecosystem and block restoration efforts on the San Joaquin River,” said Jeff Miller, conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Excessive pumping and the highest-ever water diversions from the Delta the past decade have devastated Central Valley fish populations, including commercially valuable salmon.”

Leaders of the Winnemem Wintu, a northern California tribe that has launched a campaign to restore endangered winter run chinook salmon to the McCloud River above Shasta, were outraged by the huge numbers of salmon and splittail killed by the Delta pumps.

“Will they call this an act of nature like they do to explain man’s stupid actions?,” commented Mark Franco, headman of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe. “How are the salmon to survive moving through the Delta when this happens at the pumps? What a waste!”

“Salmon need the splittail to survive in the Estuary,” said Caleen Sisk-Franco, chief and spiritual leader of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe. “The Estuary is necessary for the survival of Chinook. The Chinook are necessary for the water to be drinkable and for the People. Climate change will come in to balance once we follow the salmon runs. This is why the Winnemem will dance for the salmon and Estuary on June 5th at Glen Clove in Vallejo!”

Glen Cove is a sacred gathering place and burial ground that has been utilized by numerous Native American tribes since at least 1,500 BC. A group of Native Americans and their allies is currently holding a spiritual encampment at the burial site to stop the Greater Vallejo Recreation District from desecrating the site by developing it as a park. For more information, go to: http://www.protectglencove.org.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and agribusiness representatives claim there is no cause for alarm over the huge take of splittail in the Delta pumps, since the numbers show that the population is booming in this high water year.

“Research has shown no evidence that south Delta water export operations have had a significant effect on splittail abundance, even though fish collection facilities can capture a large number of fish (up to 5.5 million) during wet years, when spawning on the San Joaquin River and other floodplains results in a spike in population numbers,” the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service claimed in a press release in October 2010, when the agency denied a petition by the Center for Biological Diversity to list the splittail for protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). “The number of splittail captured by these facilities drops during dry years when recruitment is low (1,300 in 2007; about 5,000 in 2008) and the splittail is most vulnerable.”

However, Bill Jennings, executive director/chairman of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, disagrees strongly with the federal government’s contention that the water export pumps don’t have a “significant effect” on the abundance of splittail and other species.

“So we have a wet year where we can hopefully rebuild the fish populations and what happens?” said Jennings. “The massacre resumes. These fish are dying because they never constructed the state of the art fish screens required by the CalFed Record of Decision. The pumps are an equal opportunity execution platform – they don’t care what they kill.”

Jennings also noted that the take of splittail, salmon and other imperiled species reported in the “salvage” operation is just a fraction of the total species slaughtered every year by the operation of the state and federal pumping projects.

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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