In one of the biggest fish kills in California history, the state and federal government agencies “salvaged” a total of 11,158,021 fish in the Delta water pumping facilities between January 1 and September 7, 2011.
The Central Valley Project and State Water Project pumps in the south end of the California Delta export water to corporate agribusiness on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley and southern California water agencies.
A horrific 8,985,009 Sacramento splittail, the largest number ever recorded, were salvaged during this period, according to Department of Fish and Game data. The splittail is a native minnow found only in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River system.
During the 8-day period from May 16 though May 23 when the splittail were entering the pumping facilities in the greatest numbers, a total of 4,400,073 splittail were documented.
The fish “salvaged” at the “death pumps” of the state and federal water projects also include hundreds of thousands of threadfin shad, striped bass, American shad, white catfish and other species. The salvage numbers reveal that 742,850 threadfin shad, 514,921 American shad, 496,601 striped bass and 100,373 white catfish were “salvaged” between January 1 and September 7 of this year.
Agency staff also salvaged protected Sacramento River spring run chinook salmon, Central Valley steelhead, Delta smelt and green sturgeon, all listed under the state and federal Endangered Species Acts, in the pumping facilities. The salvage numbers list 35,560 chinook salmon, 1,642 steelhead, 51 Delta smelt and 14 green sturgeon.
The staff recorded a total of 46 species of fish salvaged in the facilities, including bigscale logperch (695), bluegill (92,615), lamprey (3,861), largemouth bass (59,041) and Sacramento sucker (27,358).
Though no comprehensive studies have been conducted on how many of the salvaged fish survive, fish advocates believe that the majority of many species perish during and after the salvage process.
Actual fish losses greatly exceed salvage numbers
While the salvage counts are certainly alarming, the overall loss of fish in and around the State Water Project and Central Valley Project facilities is believed to be much greater than the salvage counts. The actual loss could be 5 to 10 times the salvage numbers, 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.
“These salvage statistics greatly understate the total number of fish entrained, since they do not include the number of fish lost to predators or lost through the fish screens,” the report stated. “In fact, recent estimates indicate that 5-10 times more fish are lost than are salvaged, largely due to the high predation losses in and around water project facilities.”
Based on this data, the actual number of fish killed in the pumps to date this year could be anywhere from 55 to 110 million!
The Walker report also 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. 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, an endangered species that is considered an indicator of the health of the estuary, since 94-99% are lost to predation in project facilities and virtually no salvaged delta smelt survive trucking and handling.
Fishing Group, Winnemen Wintu Tribe outraged over Delta fish kill
Bill Jennings, executive director/Chairman of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance (CSPA), is outraged by the massive carnage that has occurred in the state and federal pumping facilities this year.
Reacting to the release of the latest salvage data, Jennings said, “I don’t think any estuary can stand an assault on fish populations in the numbers that we’re seeing. The project pumps are by far the largest predator in the entire estuary. The Department of Water Resources and the Bureau of Reclamation are the biggest poachers in California history!”
Caleen Sisk-Franco, the Chief and Spiritual Leader of the Winnemem Tribe, who is working on an innovative plan to restore winter run chinook salmon to the McCloud River above Lake Shasta, is also appalled by the millions of fish killed to date.
“I am just wondering why it is okay to have the largest fish kill going on in the Delta and no one notices,” said Sisk-Franco. “There are more endangered fish killed every day in the Delta pumps that are supposed to be protected. Try catching one of them to eat, and see how fast you get in trouble, but just let them swim into the Delta pumps and no one is trying to save them!”
Sisk-Franco asked, “How many dead fish is too many? Who will speak up for the fish? Everything is connected and soon we will understand what this fish kill means to the human beings.”
Bush and Obama administrations oppose splittail protection
The Sacramento splittail, the imperiled native fish that have perished in the greatest numbers in the Delta “poaching” facilities this year, were formerly protected as a threatened species but illegally stripped of Endangered Species Act (ESA) protection in 2003 during the Julie McDonald “Splittailgate” Scandal. McDonald, a high-ranking Bush administration official, helped remove the splittail from the list of threatened and endangered species because of the economic threat she believed that it posed to her farm near Dixon, California.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last fall made a controversial determination that the species does not warrant protection, despite the fact that numbers of splittail found in the annual fall DFG midwater trawl surveys have fallen to consistently low levels since 2002, and that the estimated population from 2002 to 2010 has been the lowest recorded since surveys began in 1967, according to Jeff Miller, conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity.
The Obama administration, in denying the splittail ESA protection in October 2010, claimed that the capture of huge numbers of fish by the pumping facilities in wet years has little impact on splittail abundance.
The unprecedented loss of fish life in the pumping facilities occurs as the pumps are currently exporting record amounts of water to corporate agribusiness and southern California under the “leadership” of Governor Jerry Brown and Natural Resources Secretary John Laird.
“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 explained.
At the same time, Metropolitan Water District of Southern California is wholesaling water at discount prices, since southern California reservoirs have largely filled.
Instead of taking long-needed action to stop the carnage at the water export facilities, the Brown and Obama administrations, in the foot steps of the Schwarzenegger administration, are instead pushing for the construction of a peripheral canal or tunnel through the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) to facilitate the export of more northern California to drainage impaired land on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley and southern California water agencies.
If built, the peripheral canal would result in the extinction of Central Valley steelhead, Sacramento River chinook salmon, Delta smelt, green sturgeon, Sacramento splittail and other imperiled species. However, if the state and federal agencies keep pumping water and killing fish like they have this year, extinction for these species may come much sooner!
What can you do to stop the massive fish kill?
First, please contact John Laird, California Natural Resources Secretary, and demand that he take immediate action to stop the killing of millions of Sacramento splittail and thousands of threatened spring run Chinook salmon by the Bureau of Reclamation and Department of Water Resources!
His contact information is:
California Natural Resources Agency
1416 Ninth Street, Suite 1311
Sacramento, CA 95814
(916) 653-8102 fax
Email: secretary [at] resources.ca.gov
Dan Bacher is an editor of The Fish Sniffer, described as “The #1 Newspaper in the World Dedicated Entirely to Fishermen.”