Tag Archives: smelt

California Water: Salmon Summit Menu

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Someone at the Environmental Defense Fund sent this to me at KQED after chatting me up about the Salmon Summit in San Francisco tomorrow (what’s the Salmon Summit? See below). I don’t know whether it’s on the level–is all that fish really going to be served? If so–cool! But obviously the real point is about water and fisheries in California.  

And as far as the summit goes: It’s a meeting organized by fishing and environmental groups to highlight the impact of both the drought and California’s water policy on salmon and other fish, and to counter the message from agriculture and water interests that 1) California is in the midst of a “regulatory” drought and 2) that California agriculture is being sacrificed to the interests of a minnow (the delta smelt).

The fishing/environmental folks (some style themselves “the salmon community”) really began this campaign last month. That’s when one of our senators, Dianne Feinstein, began pushing for a bill to guarantee water deliveries to the drought-stricken western side of the San Joaquin Valley. Her legislation would have set aside restrictions on water shipments from Northern to Southern California imposed to protect salmon and smelt.

The salmon community and allies pointed out that salmon fishing has been shut down for two years in a row because of a crash in chinook populations. They produced an economic analysis (from a Florida outfit called Southwick Associates) that calculated the cost of the salmon fishing shutdown: 23,000 jobs and perhaps billions of dollars in “lost economic opportunity” (I haven’t seen the analysis myself). Eleven members of Congress wrote Feinstein that her effort was ignoring the impact of our water problems on the salmon community and asked her to back off. (Ultimately, the Department of the Interior, parent of the Bureau of Reclamation, which delivers water to the west side through the facilities of the Central Valley Project, stepped in and is trying to broker increased water deliveries.)

So far, then, the summit sounds like a recap of what we’ve heard already. The question is what new actions the salmon community might want their legislators to take to help bring their fish back. I’m hoping to hear an answer to that tomorrow.

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California Water News Flash: The Pumps Are On

Allowing that one person’s misconception is another’s gospel truth, I still have the impulse to correct others when I hear them say something that I know or believe to be, well, wrong. So here’s something from the current battle over California water that always makes me want to say, “Hey, wait a minute.”

San Joaquin Valley water interests and their allies, including members of Congress, want more water than they’ve gotten the last few years. Their biggest problem is that nature has not cooperated. The previous three winters were drier than normal, and the amount of rain and snow that fell on the state’s watersheds were far below normal. That circumstance happened to coincide with Endangered Species Act litigation that has led, for the time being at least, to limits on the amount of water the state and federal water projects are allowed to pump from the Delta to the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California. Those limits, set by federal wildlife agencies and designed to protect the Delta smelt and runs of chinook salmon, have led the aforementioned water interests to scream that the Delta pumps have been shut down, that farmers are being wiped out and valley communities sacrificed for a few lousy fish.

Now, whatever you happen to think of the last part of that formulation–that those who are trying to figure out how to save the fish want to see the San Joaquin Valley “dry up and blow away” (as Rep. Jim Costa, a valley Democrat, put it)–you shouldn’t have to think much about the first part, that the pumps have been shut down. That’s because it’s not true. The pumps are running, day in and day out. The major destination for a lot of that water is the San Luis Reservoir, a key storehouse for valley water, and it’s filling up.

But despite all the readily available data on Delta water shipments, the untruth that the pumps have been switched off is too good a propaganda point for some people to pass up. Rep. Devin Nunes, who represents much of Fresno and Tulare counties in Congress, says about water resources policy: “Its [sic] Simple: Turn on the Pumps.” Since last session, he’s been pushing a bill called the “Turn on the Pumps Act.” (The bill is, in fact, very simple: “In connection with the operations of the Central Valley Project, neither the Bureau of Reclamation nor any agency of the State of California operating a water project in coordination of the Central Valley Project shall restrict operation of their projects pursuant to any biological opinion issued under the Endangered Species Act of 1973, if such restrictions would result in levels of export less than the historical maximum levels of export” (italics mine).

Got that? No limits on pumping to protect endangered species, period, unless the limit results in as much or more water being pumped out of the Delta than the projects have ever pumped.

Rep. Tom McClintock, a Southern California Republican who relocated to and won the northeastern California congressional seat in 2008, is also a source of unrelenting “turn on the pumps” rhetoric. Earlier this month, he issued a broadside against Democrats in the House Water and Power Subcommittee for blocking consideration of Rep. Nunes’s excellent bill. “For the sake of humanity, Madam Chairwoman and my Democratic colleagues, turn on these pumps.” You have to admire the way these folks keep their rhetoric on a short leash.

If I were in Congress myself, I’d rise to tell my good friends and respected colleagues, “I have good news. The pumps are on! Even as I speak, rain is sweeping over your districts and on your thirsty constituents, helping fill the reservoirs not just with water, but with hope. And in that spirit of optimism, here’s a nonpartisan, nonsectarian suggestion: Pray for more rain. I am. That way, the reservoirs will keep rising, agriculture will get its water, and maybe there will be some left over for smelt and salmon and the thousands of people who depend on them. And maybe we won’t have to hear you shriek ‘Turn on the pumps!’ again.”

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California Water: A Word (or Two) About Smelt

I spent Wednesday in Sacramento, listening to federal and state fish biologists and water managers talk about the Delta smelt–an endangered fish sometimes described as a “minnow”–what they’re learning about species, and how to keep it from being pulled into the pumping facilities that send water to the great farms and cities to the south. I am a sucker for terminology and argot, and the session was full of it. A few key terms and some that just sort of tickled me:

Entrainment. That’s the process whereby currents created by the state and federal pumps capture smelt (and juvenile salmon and other species) and slowly draw the fish toward them.

Turbidity. Simply put, cloudiness of water. It’s a hot topic in smelt circles. A consultant for one of the big San Joaquin Valley water contractors repeatedly expressed the thought that since smelt are believed to prefer turbid (cloudy) water, reduced turbidity in the area near the pumps–meaning clearer water–is probably responsible for the decline or absence of the fish there.

YOY. Year of young; fish born during the current year.

WOMT. (Pronounced “whomped.”) Water Operators Management Team.

CHTR losses.Fish mortality caused by “capture, handling, transport, and release.” CHTR happens when fish are entrained, drawn toward the pumps, and “salvaged” at a “fish facility” adjacent to one of the pumping plants. Depending on the species, they’re then trucked someplace in the western reaches of the Delta to be released.

PEI. Potential Entrainment Index. A statistic method for forecasting times and circumstances when smelt may be sucked toward the pumps.

X2. From a paper on the delta smelt habitat: “the distance in kilometers from the Golden Gate to the position of the 2 percent salinity isohaline.” (From elsewhere: “Isohalines are lines (or contours) that join points of equal salinity in an aquatic system.”)

And I could go on. But as a non-scientist, non-engineer, layperson, here’s what struck me in the discussions: How much uncertainty exists about the smelt–where it is, how it gets from one place to another, its spawning behavior. Of course, this mattered less when the Delta was full of smelt, and it was probably studied much less intensively than it is now. Now that the fish may be going extinct, it’s harder to study and get answers that may help preserve it.

I checked my impression about the uncertainty with a biologist at the meeting. They said, “That’s the elephant in the room–the uncertainty. When scientists meet with each other, they’re more open about it. In a public setting, they tend not to want to get into that.”

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