Delta fish survey reveals an ecosystem in collapse

By Dan Bacher | January 11, 2014 | A Delta fish survey released by the California Department of Wildlife this month confirms the cont...

By Dan Bacher | January 11, 2014 |
A Delta fish survey released by the California Department of Wildlife this month confirms the continuing collapse of the ecosystem of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, the largest estuary on the West Coast of the Americas. 
The survey's release takes place at a crucial time for the survival of salmon, steelhead, Delta smelt and other fish populations in California and the West. 2013 was the driest year on record in California and no relief from the drought is in sight. 

Meanwhile, Governor Jerry Brown is promoting the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) to build the peripheral tunnels as the "solution" to the co-equal goals of "water supply reliability" and "ecosystem restoration." 

The results of the Department's 2013 Fall Midwater Trawl (FMWT) reveal that populations of Delta smelt, striped bass and American shad declined from the disastrous levels of last year, while longfin smelt and threadfin shad showed little improvement from last year’s lows, according to a news release from the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance (CSPA). The survey records population "indices," a relative measure of abundance. 

The 2013 indices for Delta smelt and American shad were the second lowest in the 46 years of the survey.The striped bass index was tied for third lowest, while the longfin smelt and threadfin shad indices were the eighth and fifth lowest, respectively, according to Bill Jennings, CSPA Executive Director. 

The survey results were documented in a January 2 memo to Scott Wilson, Regional Manager, Region 3, of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, from Dave Contreras, DFW Environmental Scientist. 

The surveys were initiated in 1967, the same year the State Water Project began exporting water from the Delta, They show that population indices of Delta smelt, striped bass, longfin smelt, threadfin shad and American shad have declined 95.6%, 99.6%, 99.8%, 97.8%, 90.9%, respectively, between 1967 and 2013, according to Jennings. 

The 2013 indices for Sacramento splittail, a native fish found only in the estuary, were not released, but results from 2012 reveal that splittail indices have dropped 98.5% from 1967 levels. In 2011, the Brown administration presided over a record "salvage" of 9 million splittail in 2011, a record year for exports by the federal and state projects.

A DFW official described the results of the survey as "disappointing." 

"It's disappointing to see the numbers of fish so low," said Carl Wilcox, a Delta policy adviser at the Department of Fish and Wildlife. "The results of the survey reflect the water year type conditions; we've just been through the driest calendar year on record. If you look at the data, the results are consistent with what we've seen in the past in these conditions." 

Jennings had harsh words for the state agencies responsible for protecting fish species in the Delta and Central Valley, characterizing the fish population collapse as a "biological holocaust. 

“Excessive water diversions from the Delta by the State and Federal Projects and the failure of state agencies to enforce water quality standards have created an extended fish drought that can only be characterized as a biological holocaust,” said Jennings. “And the same agencies that orchestrated and chaperoned this biological meltdown are not only proposing a scheme to divert massive quantities of fresh water flows via tunnels under the Delta, under the guise of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP), but they ask us to trust them to build the tunnels now and figure out how to operate them later." 

Jennings said BDCP proponents suggest that the two 35-mile tunnels under the Delta will not lead to an increase in total Delta exports. 

"However, actual operations will be determined after completion of the project through a decision-tree adaptive management process by the same agencies that have historically failed to protect the estuary," he said. "Examination of the four alternative decision tree operational scenarios in the BDCP EIR/EIS reveals that all of them decrease Delta outflow and three of them substantially increase exports. " 

Jennings also said BDCP modeling conducted for the State Water Resources Control Board demonstrates that BDCP could only export about 3.1 MAF of water if reasonable fishery protection measures are included (increased outflow, bypass flow, coldwater pool management, etc.). 

“BDCP proponents are not going to spend some $67 billion to receive the same or less water and reduced outflow for an estuary already hemorrhaging from a lack of water is a death sentence,” Jennings said. "Given the agencies abysmal track record, there can be no trust and no tunnels until Jerry Brown takes affirmative steps to end his fish drought.” 

Jennings noted that the vast majority of record low indices have occurred over the last decade, when record exports to corporate agribusiness, developers and oil companies took place. 

"Comparing the average indices of the first six years of the survey (1967-72) with the average of the most recent six years shows that the six-year average indices of Delta smelt, striped bass, longfin smelt, threadfin shad, American shad and splittail have declined by 91.7%, 98.6%, 99.3%, 99.9%, 69.6% and 88.7%, respectively," stated Jennings. 

Excessive water exports by the state and federal export projects in 2013 led to degraded water quality and habitat conditions in the Delta, noted Jennings. The projects exported some 826,778 acre-feet more water than they had projected they would be able to deliver. 

"Consequently, water quality standards were violated in the South Delta in June and July through 15 August and at Emmaton in April, May and June and at Jersey Point in June," said Jennings. "Emmaton and Jersey Point are in the western Delta. Sharply increased exports coupled with a sudden reduction in Delta outflow in late June and early July caused the low salinity zone and pelagic species like Delta smelt to be drawn into the western Delta where they encountered lethal temperature conditions created by a combination of warm water released from reservoirs and high ambient temperatures." 

He said another likely factor in the killing of Delta smelt was high exports leading to excessive Old and Middle River reverse flows during the critical 15-April – 15 May San Joaquin pulse flow period. 

2013 was also a bad year for Central Valley Chinook salmon populations. Jennings said many as half of this year’s up-migrating winter-run Chinooks were stranded in the Yolo Bypass and Colusa Basin in April-June and Sacramento River temperature requirements to protect spawning winter-run were relaxed in June. 

Meanwhile, large releases of water from Shasta Dam into the Sacramento River, Oroville Dam into the Feather River and Folsom Dam into the American River throughout the summer resulted in the virtual draining of these reservoirs. Folsom Lake is only 18 percent of capacity now and the Bureau of Reclamation will reduce flows to only 500 cfs today, furthering imperiling steelhead and salmon on the river. 

The massive export of water to corporate agribusiness also left little water for Sacramento River fall-run Chinooks, the driver of West Coast fisheries. 

"In November, abrupt reductions in Sacramento River flow exposed spawning redds, killed up to 40% of Sacramento River fall-run salmon eggs and stranded newly emerged fry," said Jennings. "And low reservoir levels will likely lead to inadequate flows for young salmon out-migration this coming spring." 

"The decline of Central Valley salmon populations over the last 46 years is similar to the declines of Delta pelagic species. But the full consequences of this year’s debacle will only become fully apparent when this year’s young salmon return to spawn in three years," Jennings stated. 

Jennings emphasized, "We have seen a broad collapse of the ecosystem since the State Water Project begian exporting water in 1967. There are 5-1/2 times water rights claims as there is water available in the system." 

If action isn't taken to reverse the collapse, winter-run Chinook salmon, Delta smelt and other imperiled fish species could become extinct. 

"We are getting down to the point where a series of drought years may send some fish species to extinction," said Jennings. "We have no idea where the points of no return in Delta smelt, winter run Chinook and other fish species are. We are playing Russian Roulette with God here. Greed is destroying fisheries that evolved and prospered over millenia in a matter of mere decades." 

Jennings proposed three main solutions to restoring the ecosystem: 
• Delta exports need to be decreased to less than three million acre feet of water and outflows to the estuary need to increased. 
• The Central Valley river system needs to return to a more natural hydrograph. 
• The agencies need to replace the 1950's inadequate technology fish screens on the South Delta pumping facilities with current state of the art fish screens. 

The Responsible Exports Plan proposed by the Environmental Water Exports sets a cap on water exports of 3 million acre feet: 

Further information, including DFW’s FMWT Memo with graphs, the BDCP alternative comparison and the State Board’s quantitative comparisons can be found at:

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