Fish-kill compromise

Assembly bill establishes rescue plan for stranded fish

Save our shad: A new law working its way through the Capitol aims to avoid catastrophic fish kills, like this one at Prospect Island.

Save our shad: A new law working its way through the Capitol aims to avoid catastrophic fish kills, like this one at Prospect Island.

Courtesy Of Dan Bacher

Dan Bacher is an editor at Fish Sniffer magazine and a longtime activist for fish, fishermen, farmers, American Indians and water-use issues.

In Thanksgiving week of 2007, avid duck hunters Bob McDaris, owner of Cliff’s Marina in Freeport, and John Soto, a Delta hay farmer, decided to “scout” for ducks on the California Delta’s Prospect Island, where the Bureau of Reclamation was repairing a levee. Instead of ducks, a horrific sight greeted the two shocked sportsmen—thousands of fish, including many large adult striped bass, were stranded and dying in the draining waters of the flooded island.

McDaris immediately planned a fish rescue and lined up a long list of volunteers. Hundreds of fishermen anxiously waited to aid in rescue efforts but were forced to wait nearly two weeks until the state could resolve liability concerns, permit requests and other bureaucratic delays.

After tens of thousands more fish died, the volunteers were finally able to conduct a fish rescue in early December. The volunteers rescued 1,831 striped bass, as well as tens of thousands of Sacramento blackfish, Sacramento splittail, sunfish, threadfin shad, black bass and other species in an enormously successful effort.

To prevent similar fish-kill fiascos, Davis Assemblywoman Lois Wolk introduced Assembly Bill 1806, the Fish Rescue Plans bill, in the Legislature this February. The original version of the bill provided procedures for fish-rescue plans, along with provisions for full mitigation for damages caused to Delta fisheries by the operation of the state and federal water projects.

The Westlands Water District and other water agencies strongly opposed the mitigation provisions, and the bill was defeated in the Senate on a 21-18 vote. However, on August 22, the Senate passed an amended version, by a vote of 29-8. The bill will now go back to the Assembly.

A.B. 1806 requires the Department of Fish and Game to take steps to prepare and implement emergency fish-rescue plans for projects in Delta fisheries. Additionally, the bill helps cut through the bureaucratic red tape that stalled fishermen’s efforts to save fish after the Prospect Island incident. The bill mandates the state to establish a network of volunteers to assist with implementation of fish-rescue plans and to expedite approval of any permits needed for fish rescue in the event of an emergency.

“I introduced this measure with the aim of preventing another catastrophic fish kill like the one that took place on Prospect Island last year, to protect our state’s declining fisheries and the commercial and sport-fishing industries those fisheries support,” said Wolk. “Today’s vote takes us a step closer to that goal.”

Representatives of the broad coalition of fishing and environmental groups that backed the bill were disappointed that the mitigation provisions were removed, but were glad that the fish rescue plans section made it through the Senate.

“The amended bill addresses part of the problem—stopping a repeat of the horrendous fish kill that occurred at Prospect Island last year,” said Bill Jennings, executive director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance. “However, it does nothing to mitigate the impacts of the state and federal water projects, as well as proposals to modify the hydrology of the Delta, on chinook salmon, steelhead, delta smelt, striped bass and other fish.”

“The fishing community is disappointed that the badly needed mitigation provisions of the bill didn’t pass,” said Richard Pool, coordinator of Water for Fish. “However, we are pleased that A.B. 1806 will help coordinate and plan fish rescues in the future.”

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California dropped its opposition to the legislation after it was amended. “We were opposed because the bill had language that would have restricted export pumping,” said Bob Muir, MWD spokesman. “Southern California receives one-third of its water from the Delta and we supply up to half of the water in the region.”

The Westlands Water District board hasn’t taken a position on the amended A.B. 1806, but strongly contested the original legislation. “There needs to be a comprehensive approach to solving the problems of the Delta, such as that being done through the Delta Vision process and the Bay Delta Conservation Plan,” said Sarah Woolf, Westlands spokesperson.

The attention brought to fishery disasters by A.B. 1806 has apparently already had its impact upon the state and federal government’s response to looming fish kills. On August 25, the Bureau of Reclamation coordinated a one-day effort to rescue 600 fish remaining inside Prospect Island. The next day, volunteers from the CSPA and Trout Unlimited, in cooperation with the Department of Fish and Game and El Dorado Irrigation District, rescued thousands of fish from Caples Lake near Carson Pass to be transported to Silver Lake.