Salmon come second

Environmentalists and anglers outraged by Delta pumping

Jim Brobeck of AquAlliance doesn’t mince words about recent Delta pumping increases. He points to the state and federal authorities that are making San Joaquin Valley crops a priority over the salmon population.

Jim Brobeck of AquAlliance doesn’t mince words about recent Delta pumping increases. He points to the state and federal authorities that are making San Joaquin Valley crops a priority over the salmon population.

file PHOTO by melanie mactavish

A decision last week by state and federal agencies to increase the amount of water being pumped from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta has environmentalists and fisheries advocates outraged. The move came on April 1 after several politicians—including Sen. Dianne Feinstein and six San Joaquin Valley congressmen—urged the federal government to allow more freshwater than is normally allowed to be pumped from the two large pumps near Tracy and into San Joaquin Valley for use by farmers in that parched region.

But critics say the Central Valley’s chinook salmon are seriously threatened by the pumping increase, which has boosted the volume of water being drawn from the Delta from 1,500 cubic feet per second to 6,500.

“[The state’s Department of Water Resources and the federal Bureau of Reclamation] are apparently willing to sacrifice the future of the Sacramento River’s salmon runs for the sake of a few export crops, like lemons and almonds,” said Jim Brobeck, water policy analyst with the Chico-based group AquAlliance.

Brobeck and other environmentalists say the action violates environmental laws that strictly curtail water exports from the Delta during the spring to protect chinook salmon.

“By order of the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act, government water managers are supposed to make sure there’s enough water in the ecosystem before they start sending it away to farmers,” Brobeck said. “That is the priority.”

Juvenile chinooks are currently migrating down the San Joaquin and Sacramento rivers on their journey to the ocean. The young salmon may be at increased risk of being sucked into the pumps.

John McManus, the executive director of the Golden Gate Salmon Association, an environmental group representing Bay Area salmon fishermen, says these fish—many born in hatcheries—could be drawn by the powerful flow of diverted water through a channel called Georgiana Slough. This channel leads into the maze of backwaters of the interior Delta.

“That’s a place where most salmon don’t find their way out of if they get lost in there,” McManus said.

He says the increase in outflow from the two major Delta pumps violates a federal law passed in 2009 specifically to protect chinook salmon. The law, called a biological opinion, takes effect each year on April 1.

“One of the provisions of that law said that pumping cannot exceed the inflow rate of the San Joaquin River,” McManus said. He explained that this law aims to protect juvenile salmon and steelhead swimming down the San Joaquin as they follow the current toward the sea. If the water pumps are operating at too high a power, the river water carrying these fish can be drawn off-course, along with the small fish. He adds that Sacramento River salmon are also threatened by the pumping.

“But they’ve thrown that provision out the window,” McManus said.

During a media conference call on April 2, Mark Cowin, director of the state Department of Water Resources, said this legal loophole was created to “take advantage of the water runoff we’re seeing from recent storms.” The National Marine Fisheries Service, which enforces laws protecting salmon and other species, granted permission to loosen pumping restrictions that normally would have taken effect on April 1, Cowin told reporters.

Bob Clarke, an assistant fisheries program manager with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, says the Coleman National Fish Hatchery released about 4 million young salmon into the waters of Battle Creek, a tributary of the Sacramento, last Friday (April 4). He says juvenile salmon take between one and three weeks to migrate downstream from the hatchery to the Delta.

By the time the fish get that far, the Delta water pumping may have been reduced back to normal levels—meaning the fish might not be in danger.

But Brobeck says the agencies managing the Central Valley’s beleaguered salmon runs, which have declined over the years due largely to heavy pumping in the Delta, are failing to do their jobs. He cites the “co-equal” goals mandated by the state of California that aim to protect fisheries as well as provide sufficient water for farmers.

“But that’s a total sham,” he said. “The farmers in the San Joaquin Valley are always given the priority.”