Delta Pumps Killed 15,000 Salmon, 6 million Splittail in May
By Dan Bacher
One of the greatest fish kills in California history took place this May when the state and federal water project pumps on the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta slaughtered just under 6 million Sacramento splittail and 14,929 spring run Chinook salmon.
The federal Central Valley Project (CVP) pumps took 5,480,531 Sacramento splittail in May 2011, while the State Water Project pumps killed 506,356 splittail. That's a total of 5,986,887 splittail, nearly 6 million of these native minnows that are found only in the Central Valley and Delta.
The number of threatened Central Valley spring-run Chinook salmon killed in May is also very alarming. The CVP pumps took 7,480 salmon, while the SWP pumps killed 7,449 chinooks, a total of 14,929 fish!
The daily totals of fish "salvaged" in the pumps can be found at: http://www.dfg.ca.gov/delta/data/salvage.
State and federal officials dismissed concerns by fishermen, environmentalists and Tribal members about the huge numbers of splittail destroyed at the export pumps, saying that it showed that the splittail population boomed in this wet water year when spawning conditions were ideal for these fish. These fish, a relatively large and long-lived member of the minnow family, spawn best in the flooded areas of the Yolo and Sutter bypasses.
"The splittail have had a fabulous year," said Ted Sommer, program manager for the Department of Water Resources. "We're up to our eyeballs in splittail now. When we get a good water year like this one, we will predictably seen big numbers of fish at the pumps because there are lots of fish in the system."
He contrasted the resilience of the splittail, a prolific spawner that lives 5 to 7 years, with the Delta smelt, a less prolific spawner that only lives one year.
"There is no indication that the pumps are affecting the splittail population," said Sommer. "We will see great numbers of splittail in the Delta this year, since this species, a flood plain spawner, has the competitive advantage over other fish in wet years like this."
The Bush administration stripped “threatened” status from the fish under the Endangered Species Act in 2003 under pressure from a political appointee in a major political scandal. In October 2010, the US Fish and Wildlife Service under the Obama administration denied a petition from the Center for Biological Diversity to again protect the fish, in spite of the species declining to barely detectable levels during the Department of Fish and Game's fall surveys.
The abundance index for splittail - a relative measure of abundance - has declined to record low levels in the recent fall midwater trawl surveys of fish species in the Delta. The index declined from 281 in fall 1998 to 0 in fall 2010. (http://www.dfg.ca.gov/delta/projects.asp?ProjectID=FMW)
After hearing of the huge number of splittail and chinook salmon killed in the Delta pumps during May, Bill Jennings, chairman/executive director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance and Restore the Delta board member, quipped, "I understand why the San Joaquin River water contractors are suing the federal government to halt the commercial salmon season. If the Pacific Fishery Management Council allows the fishermen to catch some fish, they won't have enough for themselves to kill at the pumps!"
Jennings dismissed the claims by state and federal officials that the splittail and salmon are not threatened by the operation of the state and federal pumps.
"This is carnage," said Jennings. "I don't care how much splittail productivity the wet season created. The increased productivity this year can't override these kinds of losses."
"One thing that this massacre reminds us about is that 'It's the pumps, stupid.' The pumps are the main source of fish mortality in this estuary," he stated.
Jennings emphasized, "These figures don't consider the 75 to 95 percent mortality of fish that occurs in the state and federal project pumping operations before the fish even reach the salvage facilities. The salvage numbers are just the tip of the iceberg."
"If some poor subsistence fisherman is caught without a license or with a few fish over his limit, he will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. But if 6 million fish are killed in the Delta pumps, state and federal officials look the other way," said Jennings.
Jennings also noted that the state and federal contractors have refused to install state-of-the art fish screens in the state and federal pumps, as mandated under the CalFed Record of Decision to protect fish.
"It is heart breaking to hear of all the splittail and salmon killed in the pumps because we work so hard to take care of these relatives," said Mark Franco, headman of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe. "It seems that all of our efforts are thwarted everywhere we go. The government and the water contractors are culpable for this slaughter. I'm hopeful that there are people who will raise the cry and carry the message that a sustainable Delta cannot be maintained when people are only thinking about money and are not thinking of the next generation down the road."
"These numbers of fish killed are sickening," Franco continued. "When will these people wake up and see what they have done? As Grams (Florence Jones), the late spiritual leader of the Winnemem Wintu, once said, 'They just can't all be dumb and die. They have to wake up some time.'"
The fish kill occurs in the larger context of the Central Valley chinook salmon and Delta pelagic (open water) fish declines in recent years. Delta smelt, longfin smelt, threadfin shad and young striped bass have declined to record low levels since 2005, due to a combination of massive water exports out of the California Delta, an increase in toxins and other pollutants and invasive species.
The fish kill continues as Representative Devin Nunes (R-California) is trying to push through HR 1837, the San Joaquin Valley Water Reliability Act, that will result in even less protections for Central Valley salmon, splittail, Delta smelt and other imperiled Delta species than the minimal ones that are in place now. On May 30, a coalition of salmon conservation groups and businesses sent a letter to Tom McClintock, Chairman of the Subcommittee on Water and Power of U.S. House of Representatives, strongly opposing HR 1837.
"This bill is a radical attempt to place the water demands of some of California’s most junior water rights holders ahead of all other California interests in a blatant water grab," said the letter, signed by representatives of 19 fishing organizations and businesses. "It is intended to significantly enrich a small group of land owners and their water agency(s) by allowing them to purchase the maximum amount of below market, taxpayersubsidized, government-developed water -- no matter what the water year or other needs for water may exist – in order to irrigate some highly problematic or marginal lands, or to profit by reselling that water at market rates."
"This is not welfare for the needy; this is welfare for the greedy," the letter stated.
Dan Bacher is an editor of The Fish Sniffer, described as "The #1 Newspaper in the World Dedicated Entirely to Fishermen."