Pumping the Delta Dry

The staggering losses of Sacramento splittail and other fish species in the death pumps of the state and federal water projects on the California Delta continue as the Brown and Obama administrations export record volumes of water to corporate agribusiness and southern California water agencies.

An astounding 8,966,976 splittail, 35,556 chinook salmon, 430,289 striped bass, 54,412 largemouth bass, 69,383 bluegill, 76,570 white catfish, 28,301 channel catfish, 233,174 threadfin shad, 264,171 American shad, 1,642 steelhead and 51 Delta smelt were “salvaged” in the state and federal water export facilities from January 1 to August 2, 2011, according to Department of Fish and Game (DFG) data.

All indications point to the documented carnage in the Delta pumps this year being the largest fish kill of its kind in California history. However, the overall loss of fish in and around the State Water Project and Central Valley Project facilities is believed to dwarf the actual salvage counts, according to “A Review of Delta Fish Population Losses from Pumping Operations in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta,” prepared by Larry Walker Associates in January 2010 for the Sacramento Regional County Sanitation District.

The Walker report cites DFG and DWR studies as showing that 75% of fish entering Clifton Court Forebay are lost to predation in project facilities before they reach the salvage facilities, noted Bill Jennings, executive director/chairman of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance. An additional 20-30% are lost at the salvage facility louvers.

Of the remaining fish actually salvaged, 1-12% are lost during handling and trucking operation and another 10-30% are lost to post-release predation because there are only 4 release sites, according to the report.

The numbers are far worse for Delta smelt, as 94-99% are lost to predation in project facilities and virtually no salvaged Delta smelt survive trucking and handling.

“Fish losses at export facilities represent a staggering embezzlement of public trust resources belonging to all Californians,” Jennings concluded.

The massive loss of fish in the “predator” pumps occurs as the pumps are currently exporting record amounts of water to corporate agribusiness and southern California water agencies.

“Exports from the Bay-Delta may reach an all-time high in 2011,” according to Spreck Rosecrans, an economic analyst at Environmental Defense. “Through July 15, pumping for the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project has totaled 4.86 million acre-feet. With ample supplies in northern reservoirs and Sierra rivers still full of melting snow, it is likely that the pumps will continue to run at or near capacity through the end of the water year (September 30).”

The annual export total is projected to reach 6,610,000 acre-feet – 140,000 acre-feet more than the previous record of 6,470,000 acre-feet set in 2005, Rosecrans noted.

“The record export level is expected even though pumping levels were reduced not only during much of the winter and spring to protect salmon and other endangered fish but also in the late fall and early winter due to mechanical problems at State Water Project facilities,” said Rosecranz.

At the same time, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California is wholesaling water at discount prices, since southern California reservoirs have largely filled.

“Southern California’s water wholesaler is offering up cut-rate surplus supplies for the first time since 2007, but few local providers can buy in because they are short on storage space,” according to an article by Janet Zimmerman in the Riverside Press-Enterprise on July 10.

“The bounty comes from abundant snowfall all the way into early summer. Metropolitan Water District of Southern California expects by year’s end to have the highest storage levels since 1928 in its regional reservoirs, including Diamond Valley Lake in Hemet, water resources manager Deven Upadhyay said,” the article continued.

“The rosy picture presents a significant turnaround from the previous four years, when reservoirs and groundwater storage basins were depleted by a double whammy of drought and reduced deliveries caused by environmental restrictions on exports from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta,” Zimmerman claimed.

While the picture may be “rosy” for southern California water agencies and water privateers like Stewart Resnick of Paramount Farms in Kern County, who has made a handsome profit off selling subsidized water back to the public, the picture is anything but “rosy” for the huge numbers of of splittail, Central valley salmon and other fish killed at the Delta pumps this year!

So all of these fish are dying – even though southern California is flush with water this year!

“As the state and federal water exports increase to unprecedented levels, unprecedented numbers of fish are being sucked into the Delta pumps,” said Jennings. “When you kill unprecedented numbers of fish in the pumps, you greatly diminish the ability of these fish to rebound in a wet year like this one.”

While record numbers of fish are being killed in the pumping facilities, the DFG’s 2010 Fall Midwater Trawl survey revealed that fish populations were at or near historic lows. The 2010 survey documented that splittail were 0% of their 1998 population, striped bass were 0.2% of 1967 numbers, threadfin shad were 0.8% of 1997 numbers, American shad were 7.3% of 2003 numbers, longfin smelt were 0.2% of 1967 numbers and Delta smelt were 1.7% of 1970 numbers.

Department of Fish and Game (DFG) officials announced on July 20 that young Delta smelt abundance this year roughly doubles that of last year, but noted that this is “but a small fraction of their historical abundance.” The endangered smelt, an indicator species found only in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, is still near the edge of extinction.

The carnage at the pumps continues as Republicans in Congress push legislation, HR 1837, to exempt export pumping in the Delta from Endangered Species Act protections for salmon, Delta smelt and other species and to block restoration efforts on the San Joaquin River. Representative Devin Nunes (R-CA), the darling of San Joaquin Valley corporate agribusiness interests, has authored the job-killing legislation that will devastate imperiled California fish populations and fishing communities.

Between the record fish kills caused by record water exports by the Obama and Brown administrations and the assault on the Endangered Species Act and river restoration by House Republicans, the prospects for recovery of Central Valley salmon and Delta fish populations are increasingly bleak. It is beyond appalling that Natural Resources Secretary John Laird and Governor Jerry Brown have done nothing to stop the massive fish carnage at the Delta pumps this year!

For more information and action alerts, go to the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance website: http://www.calsport.org.

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

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