A diverse coalition of fishing groups united on June 29 to oppose the State’s untimely and destructive plan to increase water exports from the Delta.
The San Francisco Bay-Delta estuary is arguably the most ecologically rich estuary on the west coast of the United States. Home to a great diversity and abundance of birds, plants, fish, and other aquatic species, it may also be America’s most endangered estuary.
“If I just had one gift to leave my grandchildren, it would be a healthy Bay and Delta, with its once-great runs of salmon, sturgeon, American shad and striped bass, along with its vast expanse of fertile wetlands restored” states Whitey Rasmussen of the California Striped Bass Association, an old timer who has hunted and fished these waters for 50 years.
Many fishermen and environmentalists echo Rasmussen’s sentiment. But according to the California Department of Fish and Game (DFG) and the California Department of Water Resources (DWR), we won’t be seeing the Delta restored anytime soon. In fact, most fishers and environmentalists believe we will never see the Delta restored because we rob its lifeblood – water.
On 29 June 2005, some 40 concerned fishermen and fisherwomen assembled at the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area to be briefed by the DFG and DWR on the status of Delta. Chuck Armor, chief of operations for the DFG Bay-Delta Branch, presented the State’s understanding of what may eventually be called the “Delta Ecosystem Collapse“. Armor described biological monitoring that reveals several resident Delta fish species are at all-time lows, including threadfin shad, delta smelt, longfin smelt and young-of-the-year striped bass.
The DFG fears that this is not normal biological variability or indications of a gradual change; the past 2-3 years show a dramatic drop with an almost irrefutable crash. Moreover, Armor presented data to indicate that the Delta’s foodweb –zooplankton (copepods) – has concurrently plummeted.
DFG isn’t writing this off to the normal culprit – drought – because we’ve had normal or above normal water since 2003. Instead, DFG’s best working hypothesis is a combination of the effects from invasive species (such as exotic clams and aquatic vegetation), toxic contaminants (pesticides/herbicides and toxic algae), and water exports. The DFG has undertaken focused and expedited studies to sort out the complex cause-and-effect relationships and diagnose our sick Delta. Armor has committed to mid-November 2005 for presenting the results; he also states that an accurate diagnosis may take longer.
For the time being, DFG is not making any corrective action recommendations, not even to recommend a slight curtailment in pumping. The past two years have seen historically high water exports at the state and federal pumping plants in the South Delta. Combined, the two water projects annually pumped more than 6 million acre-feet (one acre-foot of water will supply the annual needs of two families, but most of the water is used by agriculture).
“DFG’s reluctance to recommend pumping reductions is another example of how the State has weakened resolve for the Delta. I’d have a lot more confidence in our State agencies if they demonstrated better ability to reduce pumping, not just increase pumping” laments Doug Lovell of the Federation of Fly Fishers.
“The consequences of a foodweb collapse in the Delta will be tragic. The small fish are disappearing and you don’t need a PhD to guess what’s next … the larger fish, birds, other wildlife will be the next to go” states John Beuttler of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance.
But the State is not thinking reduced pumping. Following the presentation by Armor of DFG, Kathy Kelly, chief of DWR’s Bay-Delta Office, presented the proposed South Delta Improvements Package (SDIP, aka 8500), which includes provisions to increase the pumping limit at the State pumping plant from 6,680 cubic feet per second to 8,500 cubic feet per second (at 8,500 cubic feet per second, it takes a little over 5 seconds to pump an acre-foot of water).
Kelly presented DWR’s latest version of the package that identifies three different operating scenarios given the proposed increased pumping capacity, without identifying a preferred operating scenario. Previously, DWR had stated the operating scenario providing the greatest water export was preferred. Kelly maintains that increasing the pumping capacity will allow pumping more water when its environmentally benign and less water when the ecosystem is at risk.
“Based on the recent evidence from the Delta, it’s clear that we do not have sufficient knowledge to make this distinction,” comments Tina Swanson, PhD, senior scientist for The Bay Institute, who also conducts research on Delta fisheries at UC Davis.
“You have to place a lot of trust with the State agencies to believe this will work and I don’t see a track record that builds that trust,” states Dan Bacher, managing editor of the Fish Sniffer magazine. “In fact, I challenge any state or federal agency to show a single case where a fishery was actually improved by increasing water diversions from a river or estuary.”
The SDIP is part of the Calfed Program, a comprehensive, multi-billion-dollar, decades-long collaboration of State and Federal agencies originally devised to restore the Delta ecosystem, increase water supply reliability, enhance Delta water quality, and strengthen Delta levees. The SDIP’s increase in pumping capacity is part of an integrated set of actions that has been recently attacked by environmental groups, water users, and legislators as being unbalanced and ineffective, without sound cost allocation.
Kelly stated that the draft EIR for the SDIP will be released in July 2005 or possibly August, with a 90-day public comment period. Kelly anticipates the draft EIR will show that SDIP significantly impacts the Delta ecosystem, particularly the fisheries, with mitigation proposed via the Environmental Water Account.
“How can we be expected to submit intelligent comments within this timeframe when DFG doesn’t plan to explain the Delta Ecosystem Crash until mid-November?” stated Dan Odenweller, retired DFG and NOAA Fisheries employee, representing Deltakeeper, an affiliate of Baykeeper. “We should get six weeks after DFG’s mid-November report to digest the information and prepare a meaningful review of the proposed pumping increase,” he added.
However, at the 29 June meeting, after the presentations by DFG and DWR, the fishery groups collectively and unanimously decided that the proposed increases in Delta pumping were not acceptable unless or until the ecosystem is placed solidly on the road to recovery.
“We will join groups like Friends of the River, the Planning and Conservation League, Natural Resources Defense Council and Sierra Club, along with the Winnemem Wintu (McCloud River) Tribe, in staunch opposition to pumping increases” states John Beuttler. The fishery groups initially intend to mobilize a grassroots letter campaign to Governor Schwarzenegger requesting the SDIP be shelved.
Steve Evans of Friends of the River put the legitimacy of SDIP in perspective “Additional stress on the Delta is not necessary. California is not in a water crisis. In fact, according to the State’s Water Plan, we can meet water needs well into the future without taking more water out of the Bay-Delta estuary. The Water Plan shows that demand in California may decrease over the next thirty years in response to investments in water use efficiency and recycling.”
The fishery groups were represented at the 29 June meeting by the Anglers Committee, the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, the California Striped Bass Association (including the West Delta, Rio Vista, Sacramento, Modesto, and Stockton chapters), California Trout, Golden West Women’s Fly Fishers, the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, the Recreational Fishing Alliance, the Northern California Council / Federation of Fly Fishers (including the following affiliated clubs – California Fly Fishers Unlimited, Tri-Valley Fly Fishers, Fly Fishers of Davis, Grizzly Peak Fly Fishers), United Anglers of California, and the United Pier and Shore Anglers of California.
Also present at the meeting were representatives of Friends of the River, The Bay Institute, Deltakeeper, and the Planning and Conservation League, who also concurred with the decision to oppose pumping increases.
- John Beuttler, California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, email@example.com, 510-526-4049
- Whitey Rasmussen, California Striped Bass Association, firstname.lastname@example.org, 209-477-8313
- Doug Lovell, Northern California Council / Federation of Fly Fishers, email@example.com, 510-520-3146