Tightening the tap

Feds order state to cut water-project flows to Southern California

Killer whales once roamed the West Coast from Puget Sound to California by the thousands. Today, there are only 85 orcas left in the region.

Killer whales once roamed the West Coast from Puget Sound to California by the thousands. Today, there are only 85 orcas left in the region.

Photo courtesy of national marine fisheries service

Dan Bacher is the editor of the Elk Grove-based Fish Sniffer magazine and a longtime advocate for fishery restoration in California and the West.

In a court-ordered plan released on June 4, scientists from the National Marine Fisheries Service concluded that current water-pumping operations of the federal Central Valley Project and the California State Water Project should be changed to ensure survival of four imperiled fish species and one orca population.

The “biological opinion” lists a number of steps the state and federal governments must take to protect winter- and spring-run chinook salmon, Central Valley steelhead, southern green sturgeon and southern resident killer whales from going over the abyss of extinction. The whales, now numbering only 85 individuals along the coast from Puget Sound to California, rely on Sacramento River salmon for food.

Changing water operations will impact an estimated 5 to 7 percent of the water exported annually to San Joaquin Valley water contractors and Southern California by the federal and state pumps. That’s 330,000 acre feet per year, according to Maria Rea, the NMFS area supervisor.

The opinion also calls for pilot passage programs at Folsom, Nimbus and Shasta dams to reintroduce salmon and steelhead to historic cold-water habitat above the dams. “We want to get winter-run chinook back to habitat in the McCloud River and steelhead back to habitat in the upper American River,” said Rea.

Other key measures of the plan include:

• Requiring more cold water held behind Shasta Dam for release during salmon migration and spawning seasons.

• Reducing the amount of time the Red Bluff Diversion Dam gates are closed.

• Requiring better flows and colder water to enhance salmon spawning and habitat in the American and Stanislaus rivers.

• Reducing pumping when juvenile salmon are migrating through the Delta.

The biological opinion doesn’t take a position pro or con regarding the proposed peripheral canal, but cautions that “careful planning” must be conducted to “avoid jeopardy” to endangered species. The scientists also said the opinion would have to be “reinitiated” if the canal is authorized for construction.

Sarah Woolf, spokesperson for the Westlands Water District, called the opinion a “death sentence” for “large parts of California’s economy.” She said the district intends to file a lawsuit to have this opinion set aside and “compel the National Marine Fisheries Service to go back and perform the careful analysis it should have done to assess the potential harm this plan could do to public health and safety, communities and the environment.”

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger also attacked the plan for its alleged economic impacts. “This federal biological opinion puts fish above the needs of millions of Californians and the health and security of the world’s eighth largest economy,” claimed Schwarzenegger. “The piling on of one federal court decision after another in a species-by-species approach is killing our economy and undermining the integrity of the Endangered Species Act.”

In contrast to Schwarzenegger’s attack on the peer-reviewed opinion, U.S. Reps. George Miller, Mike Thompson and Doris Matsui applauded the decision.

“With this announcement, the Obama administration has set a science-based course toward recovering the populations of wild salmon and steelhead that are so critical to California’s economy and environment,” said Miller.

Representatives of fishing organizations and California American Indian tribes reacted to the plan’s release with mixed assessments, ranging from outright praise to skepticism.

“These changes are exactly what we have been looking for,” said Dick Pool, administrator of Water for Fish. “We have been operating on an environmental disaster course for salmon, and these actions are the beginning of the turnaround.”

“The biological opinion is a long overdue but welcome initial step in protecting species hovering on the brink of extinction,” stated Bill Jennings, executive director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance. “However, it is not a recovery plan that will restore seriously degraded fisheries; much more will be required.”

Gary Mulcahy, governmental liaison for the Winnemem Wintu tribe, was less optimistic. “Though this biological opinion may set out new rules and guidelines that seek to protect our water and fisheries, I truly expect the big agribusiness and water buffaloes to use their power to find some way around it, and complete the extinction they so readily pursue in the name of progress, commerce and economic growth,” he concluded.