Anglers unite on Delta water

They cite declining fish populations as they oppose more pumping.

An unusual coalition of often fractious sportfishing groups has decided to fight a plan to boost Delta water exports, saying sharp declines in several fish species suggest the estuary is already in crisis.

Their alliance against the pumping plan is being called a first.

Representatives of more than 40 fishing groups agreed Wednesday to join environmentalists to fight the South Delta Improvement Plan. Proposed by the California Department of Water Resources, it would boost water exports at the state’s Banks Pumping Plant near Byron by up to 27 percent.

The decision came after a meeting at which state Fish and Game and Water Resources staff described, in turn, crashing numbers of striped bass and Delta smelt, and the pumping increase.

The anglers noted with agitation that, on one hand, a major research effort aims to understand the fish declines. But an environmental report on the plan to boost pumping will be released before the fish research is done.

“It was the first time I’ve seen them come together like this and reach consensus,” said John Buettler of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance. “The reason is that for the last 30 years, government has been promising us they’re going to restore fisheries and protect the public trust resources. They’ve consistently promised and not delivered.”

Water exports to Southern California farms and cities have hit near-record levels in three of the last five years. This is one result of the CalFed Bay-Delta Program, a state and federal effort to increase water supply while also improving habitat. It has spent some $3 billion on the effort over the past 10 years.

Critics say water exporters have come to dominate CalFed. But the agency’s interim director, Joe Grindstaff, disputed that.

“The water agencies would say we’re doing all these things for habitat and we haven’t done anything for water supply,” he said. “It actually confirms why it’s necessary to have this kind of effort, because if we didn’t have people cooperating, we would be in a world of hurt. Without CalFed, it would be chaos.”

As an example of the balance CalFed tries to strike, the South Delta Improvement Project also includes new movable barriers at strategic points to protect fish and water quality.

Kathy Kelly, chief of the Water Resources Bay-Delta Branch, told anglers more pumping volume could actually help fish by moving more water when conditions are safe. This, in turn, would allow longer pumping curtailments when fish are at risk.

But the fishing groups were unmoved. They believe increased pumping will only bring more harm to fish.

Dante Nomellini, a Stockton lawyer who has been involved in Delta water battles for decades, said the alliance of angling groups may indicate the degree of decay that now exists in the Delta’s environment and its politics.

“They better dig in with the rest of us to help protect Northern California against an unfair raid on the water supply,” he said.

Nomellini represents the Central Delta Water Agency, an agricultural water user. He said the agency will also oppose the South Delta Improvement Project, because it may harm water quality for Delta farmers.

The Bee‘s Matt Weiser can be reached at (916) 321-1264 or