Fish species ranging from endangered Delta Smelt to Striped Bass continued to plummet to record low population levels in 2015 in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, according to the annual fall survey report released on December 18 by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW).
Only 6 Delta smelt, an endangered species that once numbered in the millions and was the most abundant fish in the Delta, were collected at the index stations in the estuary this fall. The 2015 index (7), a relative number of abundance, “is the lowest in history,” said Sara Finstad, an environmental scientist for the CDFW’s Bay Delta Region.
The Delta Smelt, a 2 to 3 inch fish found only in the San Francisco Bay-Delta Estuary, is an indicator species that demonstrates the health of the Delta, an estuary that has been dramatically impacted by water exports to corporate agribusiness interests and Southern California water agencies during the record drought, along with other factors including increasing water toxicity and invasive species.
The Fall Midwater Trawl Survey, used to index the fall abundance of pelagic (open water) fishes most years since 1967, conducts monthly surveys from September through December. The 2015 sampling season was completed on December 11.
“In September, the only Delta Smelt collected were from index stations in the lower Sacramento River,” said Finstad. “In October the only Delta smelt collected came from a non-index station in the Sacramento Deep Water Shipping Channel.”
In November, no Delta Smelt were collected – and in December, the only Delta Smelt collected were from index stations in Montezuma Slough and the lower Sacramento River, according to Finstad.
The population of striped bass, a popular gamefish, has also declined to record low levels. The 2015 abundance index (52) is the second lowest in history. Only 42 age 0 striped bass were conducted at the survey stations, noted Finstad.
Likewise, Longfin Smelt, a cousin of the Delta Smelt, declined to the lowest abundance index (4) in the history of the survey. Only 3 longfin smelt were collected at the index stations throughout the three-month period.
The abundance index (806) for Threadfin Shad, an introduced species from the East Coast that provides forage for larger fish, reached its eighth lowest level in survey history. The biologists collected 634 Threadfin Shad at the index stations.
Finally, the 2015 abundance index (79) for American Shad, a relative of the Threadfin Shad that is pursued by anglers on Central Valley rivers every spring, is the lowest in history of the survey. Only 59 American shad were collected at the index stations.
Bill Jennings, Executive Director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance (CSPA), said the fall survey shows the “continuing collapse of the estuary caused by the failure of the state and federal regulatory agencies to comply with the law.”
“Every survey conducted, including the 20 mm Delta Smelt, spring Kodiak trawl, summer tow net, and the fall midwater trawl surveys, shows record low levels of the fish surveyed,” said Jennings.
He emphasized that in spite of the continuing record drought conditions, that water exports south of the Delta through the state and federal pumping facilities averaged 7500 cubic feet per second (cfs) over the past week. “The State Water Project pumps are averaging 5154 cfs, while the Central Valley Project Pumps are averaging 2360 cfs,” said Jennings.
As fish populations continue to collapse, the California Department of Water Resources and Bureau of Reclamation are going forward with permit petitions to the State Water Resources Control Board to change the point of diversion on the Sacramento River to implement Governor Jerry Brown’s Delta Tunnels Plan, the so-called “California Water Fix.”
Jennings and other public trust advocates point to these latest fish survey results — and the state and federal water agencies’ permit petitions to divert more water from the Sacramento River at new diversion points — as just more evidence of the “capture of the regulators by the regulated.”
The current collapse of Delta fish species occurs as part of a long-term decline. The operation of the state and federal water projects by the California Department of Water Resources and Bureau of Reclamation Reclamation has brought fisheries to historic lows.
Since 1967, abundance indices for striped bass, Delta smelt, longfin smelt, American shad, splittail and threadfin shad have declined by 99.7, 97.8, 99.9, 91.9, 98.5 and 97.8%, respectively. according to Jennings.
The natural production of Sacramento winter-run and spring-run Chinook salmon has declined by 98.2 and 99.3%, respectively, and are only at 5.5 and 1.2 percent of doubling levels mandated by the Central Valley Project Improvement Act, California Water Code and California Fish & Game Code. To make matters even worse, over 95 percent of endangered juvenile winter-run Chinook salmon perished in lethally warm water conditions on the upper section of the Sacramento River in 2014 and 2015, due to mismanagement by the state and federal water agencies.
Groups File Formal Protests With State Water Board Over Tunnels Permits
In 2016, the long battle to stop Delta Tunnels, renamed the “California Water Fix” by state and federal officials last year, has moved to a “new venue,” as Alex Breitler reported in The Stockton Record. (http://www.recordnet.com/article/20160103/NEWS/160109986/-1/A_BIZ)
On January 5, Restore the Delta (RTD) and numerous coalition partners filed either formal protests or notices of intent to make formal statements with the State Water Resources Control Board to oppose permitting to change the point of water diversion in the Sacramento River to allow for Delta Tunnels to be built, according to a news release from RTD.
“Farmers, fishermen, business, environmental, community and environmental justice leaders from throughout the region and the state recognize that the impacts of diverting the Sacramento River from the north end of the Bay-Delta estuary via the tunnels will wreak havoc on fish, wildlife, farming, business and public health needs and industries within the estuary,” said Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, RTD executive director. “Our intent is through science, economics, and law to put a stop to the Delta tunnels once and for all.”
Groups filing notices include: African American Chamber of Commerce, San Joaquin County, Asian Pacific Self Development and Residential Association, Braceros Del Delta, Assemblymember Joan Buchanan (ret), Café Coop, California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, California Striped Bass Association, California Student Sustainability Coalition, California Water Impact Network, Central Valley Asian Chamber of Commerce, Delta Chamber of Commerce, Delta Fly Fishers, Earth Law Center, Assemblymember Susan Eggman, Environmental Justice Coalition for Water, Environmental Water Caucus, Friends of the River, Senator Cathleen Galgiani, Greater Stockton Chamber of Commerce, LAND, Lao Family Community Empowerment, Lower Sherman Island Duck Hunters Association, North Delta Cares, Planning and Conservation League, Supervisor Larry Ruhstaller (ret), San Joaquin County, Semillas, Sherman Island Duck Hunters, Sierra Club California, Social Media Moms, Stockton Downtown Comeback Club and Visit Stockton.
The groups filed the notices after a devastating year when both Delta and longfin Smelt reached record low population levels — and when over 95 percent of winter-run Chinook salmon perished in the upper section of the Sacramento River due to lethally warm water conditions for the second year in a row.
The tunnels would not only hasten the extinction of Sacramento River Chinook salmon, Central Valley steelhead, Delta and Longfin smelt and green sturgeon, but would imperil the salmon and steelhead populations on the Trinity and Klamath rivers.