[env-trinity] SF Chronicle- Delta smelt numbers plunge
tstokely at trinityalps.net
Tue May 22 09:31:07 PDT 2007
Delta smelt numbers plunge
Debate over state's pumping of water after only 25 found
Patrick Hoge, Chronicle Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 22, 2007
A rare delta fish that recently almost triggered a shutdown of the state's major water system has plummeted in number, bringing it perilously close to extinction, state and federal experts warn.
Spring trawls aimed at measuring the size of the delta smelt's juvenile population found just 25 fish, the smallest number ever recorded and 93 percent fewer than the previous year. In most trawls, biologists caught no smelt at all.
That has alarmed state and federal fish experts, who say the state should significantly cut the use of giant pumps that export water out of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta for use by 24 million people and farmers. Some environmental groups have likened the Tracy-area pumps to huge vacuum cleaners that cause water to flow upstream, sucking the fish into the pumps or stranding them in areas where they are vulnerable to predators.
In March, an activist group won a decision from an Alameda County judge who told the state to shut down the pumps or obtain permits to legally kill the threatened fish. State officials, who say the state would suffer economically if the water pumps are stopped, have appealed that ruling.
Top officials with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's administration agreed Monday that the survey data from the Delta Smelt Working Group were extremely serious, and said pumping had been slowed.
But they blamed use of pesticides for killing many smelt this spring in the Sacramento River, and said they might not be able to reach the Delta Smelt Working Group's goal of reducing pumping in the south delta so that fresh water actually flows toward San Francisco Bay.
The Delta Smelt Working Group, which includes scientists from three federal and two state agencies, said water should not run backward in the south delta until later in the summer when water temperatures rise. Smelt typically migrate to Suisun Bay when water temperatures get hot.
Department of Water Resources Deputy Director Jerry Johns said that stopping the pumps is not necessarily the answer and that the pumps have not been killing many fish recently.
"We need to take a more holistic approach rather than just focusing on the pumps,'' he said.
Chuck Armor, acting regional manager for the Department of Fish and Game's bay-delta region, agreed. He said water tests on the Sacramento River, where state officials tried to send baby smelt using pulses of fresh water from the south delta, showed that pesticides may have killed many of the fish this year.
Johns said Schwarzenegger is seeking a comprehensive solution through the Delta Vision task force established in October. That group is supposed to come up with a plan for helping the delta by the end of 2008.
In the meantime, Johns said, various actions have been taken to help fish, including cutting current pumping levels as much as possible without, for example, affecting supplies to users in the East Bay.
Bill Jennings, executive director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, called Johns' assertions a smoke screen. His group sued the state over pumping operations and the effect on the smelt.
"They're still in a state of denial,'' Jennings said. "Year after year, Jerry and company have been saying the same thing: 'We're addressing it.' And the numbers of fish have spiraled down, and the amount of water pumped has increased.''
Michael Lozeau, an attorney working with Jennings, said the smelt "are absolutely on the brink of extinction'' and state bureaucrats want "to sit around for a year basically pushing paper.''
Jennings said the Fish and Game Department could keep the pumps running by declaring that state rules comply with federal laws, or by issuing permits allowing the protected fish to be killed.
But such findings would have to be based on scientific data showing no significant harm would be done to the species, and according to a memo from the Delta Smelt Working Group, there is virtually no likelihood that could happen, he said.
"The delta smelt are an indicator species. They show the health of the delta,'' said Dan Bacher, editor of the Fish Sniffer, a publication for fishing enthusiasts, who is calling upon readers to put pressure on state officials. "If the smelt go extinct, other species are going to follow.''
According to the working group, five surveys caught only 25 juvenile smelt, about 7.7 percent of the 326 taken during the same time in 2006, and only 7.1 percent of the 2000-2006 average of 353.
Kevin Fleming, a senior Fish and Game biologist who is with the smelt working group, said Monday that he was satisfied that state officials were responding appropriately to the latest information, even if they might not be able to achieve the group's recommendation.
"I've attended all those meetings, and they are taking this very seriously,'' Fleming said.
As to whether those efforts will be enough to save the smelt, Fleming was unsure.
"I haven't a clue. Things don't look good, but at this point, what we have is a major concern,'' he said.
E-mail Patrick Hoge at phoge at sfchronicle.com.
This article appeared on page B - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle
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