Federal Scientists Find Delta Tunnels Plan Will Devastate Salmon

While the Governor focused on promoting the environmentally destructive Delta Tunels plan, the Department of Water Resources (DWR) and other agencies failed to maintain and improve Oroville Dam and existing water infrastructure. DWR photo.  | 


By Dan Bacher | March 21, 2017 |

UPDATED 3:30 p.m.

Governor Jerry Brown and administration officials claim that the California WaterFix, a controversial plan to build two 35-mile long tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, is based on “science.”

“The best scientific thinking says California needs the project,” Governor Brown told Dan Morain, Sacramento Bee editorial page editor in an interview in December of 2016. (www.sacbee.com/...)

However, federal scientists strongly disagree with Brown’s claim that “best scientific thinking" supports the construction of the tunnels. In fact, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has released a draft biological opinion documenting the harm the tunnels would cause to salmon, steelhead, Delta and longfin smelt, other fish and wildlife species, and water quality.   

An independent peer review panel found the NMFS findings are backed  by “comprehensive analyses, new data, and modeling,” according to a statement from the Golden Gate Salmon Association (GGSA). The panel further found NMFS used the “best available science” and produced evidence of “significant adverse impacts” to species and critical habitat, including unacceptable harm to salmon.



Based on new scientific data documenting that the California WaterFix project would worsen water and habitat conditions for migrating Central Valley salmon, GGSA said it opposes the tunnels plan as “currently envisioned.”

“The NMFS science and the peer review both make clear the current twin tunnels proposal will likely drive the salmon to extinction and will harm other wildlife. GGSA has no option but to oppose this project,” said John McManus, GGSA executive director. 

Some of the many problems highlighted in the NMFS report are the following:

• The heavy flow through the fish screens at the giant water intakes in the Sacramento River, located just downstream of Sacramento, could impinge the juvenile salmon to the screens where they will perish.
• Those that survive impingement and are stressed or injured will be subject to heavy predation.
• The Sacramento River below the screens will be reduced to a relative trickle.  The tiny salmon need strong flows to push them downstream. Without that, more predation and heavy losses will result.
• Lower flows downstream of the intakes will cause more juvenile salmon lost to the interior Delta through the Delta Cross Channel and Georgiana Slough.
• A major decrease of freshwater downstream of the intakes will also highly degrade water quality, resulting in increased contaminants and decreased food sources. 

“The models used to gauge the damage to salmon showed a zero percent chance the tunnels would help winter-run Chinook salmon,” noted McManus. “Instead the modeling showed a slow steady decline towards extinction for these salmon if the tunnels are built and operated as currently envisioned.”

NMFS scientists forecast  increases in winter run Chinook redd (nest) dewatering (page 78) and spring run Chinook redd (nest) dewatering (page 86) on the Sacramento River if the tunnels are built.
The NMFS report also highlights two upstream issues of concern to anglers and public trust advocates:

• Salmon egg and alevin mortality on the American River under the tunnels project “clearly” results in adverse effects on fall run salmon, the mainstay of the sport and commercial fishing industries.
• Increased loss of federally protected winter and spring run salmon will occur from dewatering of their incubating eggs in upstream river gravels. 

“This project will not only destroy the salmon, but it also threatens the jobs of the thousands of people who depend on healthy salmon runs, including fishermen, tackle shops, boat shops, launch ramp operators, marinas, and many others,” said GGSA director Mike Aughney. “It’s time to admit this version of the tunnel idea won’t work.  There’s no doubt the status quo is very bad for salmon, but this giant twin tunnels proposal obviously isn’t the answer.”

GGSA secretary Dick Pool added, “The State Water Board’s update of the water quality control plan, including new flow standards to protect salmon, water quality, and the health of the delta, also needs to be completed before any tunnel project can be properly considered and designed.”

The Governor continues to promote his tunnels as recreational, commercial and Tribal fishermen face reduced ocean and inland salmon seasons this year. Pre-season numbers unveiled by Dr. Michael O’Farrell of the National Marine Fisheries Service at a meeting in Santa Rosa on March 1 estimate only 230,700 Sacramento River fall run Chinook adults and 54,200 Klamath River fall run adults will be in the ocean this year.  

Both forecasts are lower than those of recent years, with the forecast for Klamath fall run being among the lowest on record. Ocean regulatory management for salmon fisheries on the ocean from Cape Falcon in Oregon to the Mexico-US Border is heavily based on these runs.

The Delta Tunnels will also have a huge detrimental impact on Delta smelt, a state and federally listed endangered species, including reducing the available habit for smelt, migration, spawning and rearing.

“The PA will result in substantial adverse effects by the constriction/reduction in available habitat to delta smelt that support the migration, spawning, transport, and rearing processes that are necessary for reproduction and therefore survival of the species,” the report states. (page 251) 

The document also states, “The delta smelt population will be most affected by the constriction and reduction in the quantity and quality of available suitable habitat to rearing juveniles and adult spawners. Their habitat size will be greatly reduced from restricted access in the north, altered flows in the south Delta, and interior Delta movements of the LSZ. The quality of habitat will be further degraded by small changes in salinity, water temperature, water clarity, food supply, Microcystis, and selenium under the PA.” (Page 260) 

Delta smelt, longfin smelt and other fish species continue to remain at the edge of extinction. The Delta smelt has not yet become extinct, but the numbers of fish collected in the fall 2016 midwater trawl survey conducted by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) remained alarmingly low.

This is in spite of improved precipitation last winter and spring, followed by a very wet fall that should have resulted in much higher numbers of smelt surviving.

The Delta smelt index, a relative measure of abundance, survey was 8, the second lowest in history. Seven Delta smelt were collected in November – and none were collected in September, October, or December, according to a memo from James White, environmental scientist for the CDFW’s Bay Delta Region, to Scott Wilson, Regional Manager of the Bay Delta Region. (http://www.dfg.ca.gov/delta/data/fmwt/bibliography.asp )

From 1967 through 2015, populations of striped bass, Delta smelt, longfin smelt, American shad, splittail and threadfin shad declined by 99.7, 98.3, 99.9, 97.7, 98.5 and 93.7 percent, respectively, according to Bill Jennings, Executive Director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance (CSPA). For more information, read: fishsniffer.com/… 

While Governor Jerry Brown and other state officials proclaim that the Delta Tunnels project will “restore” the Delta ecosystem, they revealed their real plans when the administration applied for a permit to kill winter-run Chinook salmon, Central Valley steelhead, Delta and longfin smelt and other endangered species with the project.

On October 7, 2016, California Department of Water Resources (DWR) submitted an “incidental take” application for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) in “compliance” with the California Endangered Species Act (CESA) in order to build the Delta Tunnels.


The NMFS draft biological opinion confirms and expands upon what previous scientific reviews of the Delta Tunnels project, including a scathing 43-page report by the U.S. EPA in August 2014, have already documented - that the project, rather than restore the ecosystem, is likely to harm water quality and further imperil struggling populations of salmon, steelhead and other fish species in Central Valley rivers, the San Francisco Bay-Delta and the ocean.

The EPA diagnosis revealed that operating the proposed conveyance facilities “would contribute to increased and persistent violations of water quality standards in the Delta, set under the Clean Water Act,” and that the tunnels “would not protect beneficial uses for aquatic life, thereby violating the Clean Water Act." (www.epa.gov/...)

The Delta Tunnels project is based on the absurd assumption that diverting more water out of a river and estuary will somehow “restore” that river and estuary. In addition to hastening the extinction of Sacramento River Chinook salmon, Central Valley steelhead, Delta and longfin smelt and green sturgeon, the California WaterFix also threatens already imperiled salmon and steelhead on the Trinity and Klamath rivers.





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