[env-trinity] Three News Articles - Congressional Hearing on Delta Collapse

Byron bwl3 at comcast.net
Tue Feb 28 10:56:32 PST 2006

No simple answer seen for drastic decline of delta fish; Federal hearing
explores ways to address the problem

San Francisco Chronicle - 2/28/06

By Gen Martin, staff writer


Stockton -- The sudden collapse of several fish species in the
Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta is likely a result of factors including
water exports, pesticides, non-native species and even poisonous algae,
government scientists testified Monday at a hearing of the House of
Representatives Resources Committee. 


The hearing, held at the Rough and Ready Naval Reservation in Stockton,
follows last year's revelations that many of the delta's most important fish
species, including the delta smelt, have all but disappeared. Debate over
how to address the problem has pitted environmentalists and academic
scientists against agribusiness and public water agencies. 


A group of commercial and recreational fishing advocates picketed Monday's
meeting, holding signs calling for reduced water exports from the delta to
cities and farms in the southern half of the state. 


"It's an economic as well as an environmental catastrophe," said Gary Adams,
the state president of the California Striped Bass Association. "Since 1995,
businesses related to delta fishing have lost $4 billion -- boat dealers,
marinas, restaurants, tackle shops -- everybody." 


Some congressional members who attended the hearing favored further study of
the problem, while others urged shelving pending plans to increase water
exports to the South State. 


"I understand it's a complex issue, but we can't just say it's complex and
then keep demanding more studies while we continue to pump more and more
water," said Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez. 


Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Tracy, who chairs the committee and ran Monday's
hearing, acknowledged that some delta fish species "are at an all-time low,
but no one can responsibly say why. The easy way out is to finger-point to
some policy or infrastructure hated by some groups. Throwing money at the
cause of the month will not get us anywhere, either." 


Pombo said he was concerned that 15 years of effort, which involved changing
pumping schedules and spending millions of dollars on fish screens and other
measures, had resulted in no net gain for the fish. 


"None of it has worked, and we need to know why," Pombo said. "Whatever we
decide to do will have a big impact on the delta, but it will also have a
big economic impact on California." 


Water from the delta irrigates hundreds of thousands of acres of San Joaquin
Valley farmland and slakes the thirst of more than 20 million Californians.
But environmentalists and many academic scientists maintain that the
population crash of four key delta fish during the past few years -- delta
smelt, longfin smelt, threadfin shad and striped bass -- is demonstrably
linked to reduced freshwater flows through the delta and San Francisco Bay. 


The four species suffer, water export policy critics say, because restricted
flows diminish the delta's biological productivity and because the giant
pumps near Tracy, which move the water south, grind up many fish. But agency
scientists said the issue is more complicated than that. 


"This is a tough problem, and there is no simple answer or smoking gun,"
said Chuck Armor, the California Department of Fish and Game's Central
Valley bay-delta branch operations manager. "More likely, there are multiple
causes, and they may vary from species to species." 


Miller took to task David Harlow, the assistant field supervisor for the
Sacramento office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, for not directly
addressing the impacts of water exports on the threatened fish. 


Referring to a plan to conjoin the operation of the state and federal pumps
at Tracy to send more water south, Miller asked Harlow why Fish and Wildlife
didn't oppose the measure. 


"You describe this as a very complex problem, but you wouldn't introduce
more Asian clams, would you?" Miller asked. "You wouldn't introduce more
herbicides, would you? But apparently, there is a move on the part of some
agencies to increase water exports from the delta." 


Harlow said he had been advised by his agency's legal counsel to avoid
discussing the matter because the water export plan is under litigation.


Policy threatens to eclipse science on Delta, Miller says

Contra Costa Times - 2/28/06

By Mike Taugher, staff writer


STOCKTON - During the first congressional hearing into what might be causing
the ecosystem crisis in the Delta, Rep. George Miller said Monday that water
agency officials are committed to sending water to San Joaquin Valley and
Southern California even it comes at the expense of the Delta's health.


Miller, D-Martinez, said he doubts whether advice coming from scientists
will be heeded if they conclude that pumping water out of the Delta is the
main cause of the declining ecosystem.


Water pumping is considered one of the three leading suspects causing the
Delta's problems, along with invasive species, especially an Asian clam that
grows thick in Suisun Bay, and toxic substances like pesticides. Cutting
back on water deliveries could be the logical recommendation if the Delta's
woes are directly tied to the levels of pumping.


"You wouldn't introduce more clams at this point, would you? You wouldn't
add more pesticides, would you?" Miller asked a panel of state and federal


That question underscored the most highly charged potential fallout of the
Delta's problems -- that water deliveries to users in other parts of the
state might be part of the reason for the ecological crisis. Reversing the
problem could affect irrigation water for 7 million acres of farmland and
drinking water for more than 22 million people.


Miller, said that although Monday's hearing was focused on the science
underlying the problems, policy decisions should also be examined.


"We can keep talking about the best available science, but when you have the
best available science ... it's not being followed," Miller said.


He cited two examples last year when scientists recommended temporary
curtailments of water deliveries to protect Delta smelt.


In both instances, which the Contra Costa Times disclosed in July, water
agency managers overrode the scientists' advice and maintained
higher-than-recommended pumping levels, even though at the time they knew
that populations of Delta smelt and other fish were plummeting to alarming

"The battle cry here is sound science. You get sound science, and then you
have policy people making decisions to overrule it," Miller said.


The field hearing of the House Resources Committee was convened by committee
chairman Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Tracy, nine months after it became public
that several Delta fish species were at least three years into a steep and
inexplicable decline.


That decline, which appears to be indicative of deepening ecological
problems in the Delta, continued to worsen last year. Even though two of the
four fish species' populations rebounded, those improvements were not as big
as expected given good snow and rainfall conditions last year, scientists


Meanwhile, Delta smelt, the most imperiled Delta fish species, went from a
record low population to a much lower figure last fall.


"The one thing we learned in 2005 is there is no simple answer or smoking
gun for this. This is a tough problem," said Chuck Armor of the California
Department of Fish and Game.


Pombo said Monday's hearing was the first in what will be several on the
Delta's troubles. The next hearing will probably focus on its fragile
levees, he said.


Pombo said he wanted to avoid politics during Monday's hearing and delay
discussion about what needs to be done so that the focus could be on what
scientists know about the problem.


The panel included seven state and federal scientists who reviewed the scope
and possible causes of the crisis: Last year, scientists realized that
several of the Delta's open-water fish species, including Delta smelt, young
striped bass, threadfin shad and longfin smelt, began a sudden and sharp
decline in about 2002.


The sweeping nature of the decline within the open-water ecosystem and the
fact that it could not be explained by weather patterns or any other
identifiable cause alarmed scientists.


They quickly identified pumps, toxics and invasive species as possible
culprits, and after a $1.7 million research effort last year came up with
two more detailed theories that might explain at least some of the problem.


The first theory involves invasive clams in Suisun Bay that are eating
plankton that would otherwise be food for small fish. The second theory
asserts that higher pumping rates during the winter, which were instituted
to make up for slowdowns meant to protect fish in the spring, appear to be
killing more fish than expected.


But scientists said they do not know when the cause will be identified.


"Unfortunately, they are not as far along on the science as I had hoped in
terms of conclusions and policy recommendations," Pombo said. "To make any
kind of major policy change would be premature."


Five members of Congress, including Pombo and Miller, attended the hearing.


Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Atwater, Rep. Grace Napolitano, D-Norwalk, and Rep.
George Radanovich, R-Mariposa, asked scientists to consider other possible
explanations besides pumping rates, which they suggested could include
global climate change.


Napolitano asked if fertilizers could be causing the problem and Cardoza



Go fish; Hearing uncovers few answers to declining Delta populations

Stockton Record - 2/28/06

By Warren Lutz, staff writer


STOCKTON - A team of state and federal scientists struggled Monday to
explain to federal lawmakers why several fish species are dying in the

"We still have a lot of questions we need to answer over the next couple of
years," Department of Water Resources scientist Ted Sommer told five House
Resources Committee members who met at the Port of Stockton.

Some lawmakers - and some attendees - had their own suspicions.

Species of threadfin chad, striped bass, longfin smelt and Delta smelt are
at or near historic lows in the 1,000-mile estuary, prompting scientists
earlier this year to study possible causes.

Their research so far has yielded three primary reasons or a combination of
them: exports of Delta water to Southern California, pollution and invasive
species that gobble native fish's food supply. They just don't know which
problem is the biggest culprit.

With nearly $2million spent on their quest last year, some lawmakers voiced
frustration at not having solid answers.

"After all this time being under the microscope, you'd think we'd know more
than we do," said Rep. Grace Napolitano, D-Norwalk.

About 23 million Californians drink Delta water, sent south from large pumps
near Tracy to communities and farms. Napolitano's district lies in Los
Angeles County, which she said gets one-third of the Delta's water.

"We benefit from everything you do up here," she said.

Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, hammered the scientists with questions over
those same exports.

Miller wanted to know why state and federal officials are planning to send
even more water south as fish populations continue to crash.

"We can keep talking (about) sound science, ... but it's not followed," said
Miller, a vocal environmentalist in Congress who last summer persuaded Rep.
Richard Pombo, R-Tracy, to hold the fish-crash hearings.

Pombo chairs the Resources Committee and also represents part of the Delta
region. He said in September that he planned to hold the hearings in
California instead of a typical Washington hearing. The Resources Committee
oversees much of the nation's environmental policy, including various
wildlife agencies.

The scientists who testified Monday - representing the state Department of
Water Resources, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, and state and federal
wildlife agencies - reminded the legislators that they do research, not

When important findings emerge, California Fish and Game Bay-Delta manager
Chuck Armor said, "it will be made available as soon as it can make it up to
our directors and out. ... They make the call on what to do with it."

Pombo advised committee members to stick to the issues. "I did not want this
hearing to become another round of finger-pointing," he said.

Some at Monday's event pointed fingers anyway.

A dozen anglers stood outside the hearing, protesting water exports. Some
were members of groups that sued the National Marine Fisheries Service and
the Bureau of Reclamation last year, claiming state and federal water
operations were killing fish.

Mike McKenzie, vice chairman of the Bay-Delta chapter of the Federation of
Fly Fishers, noted the scientists who testified worked for the same agencies
that manage the water-export pumps.

"What we saw," McKenzie said, "was a bunch of government biologists
constrained by the real-life politics of the issue." 



Byron Leydecker

Chair, Friends of Trinity River

Advisor, California Trout, Inc

PO Box 2327

Mill Valley, CA 94942-2327

415 383 4810 ph

415 383 9562 fx

bwl3 at comcast.net

bleydecker at stanfordalumni.org





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