The dead fish plan

Pub date March 8, 2011

By Patrick Porgans

The recently formed Delta Stewardship Council, charged with protecting the San Francisco-San Joaquin Delta Estuary, released a draft report in February with more bad news about the possible fate of aquatic species.

A number of the fish, which have been the focus of national attention, are already listed as threatened or endangered under the provision of the Endangered Species Act.

This preliminary finding comes after more than $10 billion has been expended over the course of a decade by federal and state officials — who have insisted that their plans would not only restore estuary fisheries but would double the populations of endangered species such as salmon.

But CALFED — the joint federal/state effort — failed to restore fish populations, and now the state says some species may never recover. So it’s hard to have a lot of confidence in the new agency.

The draft report was released by DSC’s executive officer, Joe Grindstaff, former director of CALFED’s Bay-Delta program. At one point, in 2007, Grindstaff acknowledged: “Fundamentally, the system we designed didn’t work.”

That’s an understatement. Tens of millions of fish have been killed by government-operated projects pumping and exporting water from the delta. More than 50 million fish were considered “salvaged” — saved from the pumps — but millions of them also wound up dead. And there are tens of millions, perhaps hundreds of millions, more that are unaccounted for.

Ironically, this unfathomable loss occurred while officials were engaged in several failed fish-doubling plans that spanned decades, cost the public billions of dollars in borrowed money, and contributed the California’s deficit-ridden budget crisis.

And now there’s a new plan, crafted by the same people who bungled the last one. It’s projected to cost as much as $80 billion and take another 90 years to complete.

According to the draft plan, “the funding needed … is large. Capital expenditures required for the delta in the next 10 to 15 years could range from $12 billion to $24 billion, with a high estimate of $80 billion. The annual operating costs of the … council are unknown.”

We’ve been here before. Critics argued from the inception of CALFED that it was doomed to fail because, like the new council, it was composed of many of the same agencies that caused the estuary to become imperiled. And it has, in fact, failed. When I called to find out its status, Eric Alvarez, a spokesperson for the new delta council, responded that CALFED “no longer exists in the conventional sense. It does not have a staff or a location.”

The first draft report of the new council provides some key preliminary findings, all of which ignore the essence of the problem.

First, it states that “California’s total water supply is oversubscribed. California regularly uses more water annually than is provided by nature.” It’s true that California’s water resources are oversubscribed — but that’s the result of the government’s failure to prudently appropriate the water we have.

Next it says, “California’s water supply is increasingly volatile” — a fact that has been made worse by mismanagement.

“Even with substantial ecosystem restoration efforts, some native species may not survive,” it adds, noting that “there is no comprehensive state or regional emergency response plan for the delta.” It doesn’t mention that state officials have had 50 years to come up with such a plan, and have consistently failed.

“Even with substantial restoration efforts, some native species may not survive,” the plan states. “Expert opinion suggests that some stressors are beyond our control and the system may have already changed so much that some species are living on the edge…. In addition, habitat conditions for some species may get worse before they improve.”

That’s an astonishing admission coming, in effect, from the same government agencies that once promised they would double fish populations by the year 2002.

The fact is that anadromous fish and other pelagic species populations, which depend on the delta estuary, have reached alarming all-time lows.

How did the salmonid and other endangered species reach what may be the point of no return? It’s simple — the delta pumps that send water south to irrigate arid land, as approved by CALFED, are by their very nature fish- killers.

According to data from the California Department of Fish and Game (DFG), from 1984 through 2006 an estimated 22 million fish were killed at the State Water Project’s Delta pumping facilities alone. That works out to an annual average of nearly 1 million fish killed as a result of SWP’s water exports from the delta.

And that’s just one pump. The federal Central Valley Project, which also sucks up delta water, provides estimates of federally-listed Chinook salmon and steelhead loss, as well as estimates for salvage rates of delta smelt, Sacramento splittail, and longfin smelt.

Data obtained from government sources indicate that from the period of 1980 through 2002, 54 million fish were salvaged from the SWP Skinner Fish Facility and the federal project’s Tracy Fish Facility. That averages out to 2.4 million salvaged fish, or five per minute, 365 days per year.

What happens to the salvaged fish? Nobody knows for sure. The DFG recently disclosed that it has never conducted a quantitative analysis or study on the topic.

The numbers would not be good. The salvaged fish are placed in tanker trucks and transported from the pumping facilities and dumped back into designated locations in the delta, where eagerly awaiting predators have a daily feeding frenzy. According to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife 2008 report, “salvaged” Delta smelt, which in some years ranged as high as 5 million, are typically written off as dead.

Ironically, in all that time the responsible officials have yet to be held legally accountable for even one dead fish.