Funding Sites Reservoir will only hasten the extinction of California salmon and other fish species

By Dan Bacher | 

The California Water Commission yesterday voted to move forward two water projects — Sites Reservoir and Pacheco Reservoir — that will have devastating consequences for imperiled salmon and other fish species and the environment. The Commission decided that the projects maintained their eligibility to receive public funding under Proposition 1, despite a multitude of public comments at the Zoom meeting by California Tribal leaders and representatives of environmental justice, fishing and fishing groups.

"Even more egregious than the Commission’s vote was its rejection of the public comments opposing the projects, and its treatment of tribal representatives who will be adversely affected by the projects,” said Brandon Dawson, director of Sierra Club California, in a statement. “Tribal members continuously voiced concerns about the lack of tribal consultation during the meeting’s public comment portion, and were resoundingly ignored. Every member of the public deserves the time and opportunity to voice their opinion without fear of being shut down.”

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Below is my public comment to the Commission. I will be posting a more in-depth article on yesterday’s meeting later:

I’m Dan Bacher, an independent journalist focusing on fish, water and environmental justice. I urge you to reject funding Sites Reservoir project at a time when California salmon and other fish populations are in unprecedented collapse.

The fish populations in the Bay-Delta Estuary and Central Valley rivers have declined dramatically with many species now on the edge of extinction, due to the export of Delta water to agribusiness, other water diversions and Central Valley dam operations. The construction of Sites Reservoir, in conjunction with the Delta Tunnel and voluntary agreements back by the Newsom Administration, would only make a terrible situation even worse, not benefit the ecosystem as Sites proponents argue.

The 13,200 acres Sites Reservoir would include new water diversions from the Sacramento River that could also impact the Trinity River, the largest tributary of the Klamath River. The Yurok, Hoopa Valley, Karuk and other tribes have depended on the salmon and other fish as part of their livelihood and culture for many thousands of years, but the salmon populations have collapsed dramatically in recent years. The plan includes water storage for the Bureau of Reclamation, the agency that delivers CVP water to Westlands Water District, the major diverter of Trinity River water

Sites could cause the Sacramento River and Shasta and Trinity Reservoirs to be overdrafted.  Sites Reservoir would be used to divert more Northern California water to San Joaquin Valley agribusiness through the Delta tunnel when what is needed to restore fish populations is more water for fish, not less.

For the past three years, no Delta smelt, once the most abundant fish in the entire Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, have been found in California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) Fall Midwater Trawl survey. None have been found in the first two months of the four-month survey this year either.

Two other surveys on the Delta have turned up similar results for the Delta smelt. The Enhanced Delta Smelt Monitoring (EDSM) caught only 1 Delta smelt in 2200 smelt-targeted net tows in 2021. That compares to 49 captured in 2020 and hundreds in prior years. None were captured in the Spring Kodiak Trawl 2021 survey.

“This year’s results indicate that Delta smelt are likely virtually extinct in the wild,” according to fishery biologist Tom Cannon.

The virtual extinction of Delta smelt in the wild is part of a greater ecosystem crash caused by massive water exports to corporate agribusiness interests in the San Joaquin Valley, combined with toxics, declining water quality and invasive species in the Delta.

Between 1967 and 2020, the state’s Fall Midwater Trawl abundance indices for striped bass, Delta smelt, longfin smelt, American shad, splittail and threadfin shad have declined by 99.7, 100, 99.96, 67.9, 100, and 95 percent, respectively, reported Bill Jennings, Executive Director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance.

The diversion and export of water for Central Valley agribusiness interests during a drought has also had a huge impact on imperiled Sacramento River populations, just as it has had on driving the Delta smelt to become virtually extinct in the wild.

This year up to 98 percent of winter run chinook salmon juveniles in the Sacramento River perished as water was delivered to water contractors as the Bureau of Reclamation violated their own plan to only kill 80 percent of winter run salmon every day but one through the diversion season.

Not only did nearly all of the winter run Chinook salmon juveniles perish due to warm water conditions in the Sacramento River this year, but the majority of adult spring-run Chinook salmon on Butte Creek - over 14,500 of an estimated 18,000 fish - before spawning this year, due to an outbreak of disease in low and warm water conditions.

I strongly the Commission to reject funding the building of Sites Reservoir and Pacheco reservoirs at a time when salmon, Delta smelt and other fish species are threatened with extinction. We need more water for imperiled fish populations, not less.  

Now is not the time for the California Water Commission to keep going forward with Sites Reservoir. Now is the time for the state of California to take decisive action to stop species extinction. Please remember: Extinction is forever.

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