[env-trinity] Times Standard-Sacramento salmon numbers down as delta pumping fight heats up

Tom Stokely tstokely at att.net
Sat Feb 13 09:25:10 PST 2010


Circling the drain? Sacramento salmon numbers down as delta pumping fight heats up

John Driscoll/The Times-Standard

Posted: 02/13/2010 01:27:21 AM PST

Federal fisheries managers are reporting that 2009 salmon returns to the Sacramento River basin were the worst on record, just as a new plan is being proposed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein to boost water diversions from the river delta to Central Valley farms. 

Commercial and sport fishermen may be facing another year in which fishing will be restricted or closed along the California and southern Oregon coast. Outrage is building over an amendment being pitched by Feinstein that some fellow Democrats say would do an end-run around the federal Endangered Species Act and imperil salmon in order to provide more water to valley farms. 

The amendment would be rolled into a federal jobs bill, and came as a surprise to Rep. Mike Thompson, who said Feinstein assured him and other Democrats that a delta plan would be based on a framework being developed by the National Academy of Sciences. 

"She's decided to chart her own course and do this amendment," the St. Helena Democrat said. "It's disappointing at best." 

The peer-reviewed study aims to explore a sustainable approach to water and fisheries management, and is expected to be released in mid-March, according to the NAS. 

Feinstein's press office did not return the Times-Standard's phone calls Friday. 

The Sacramento River basin normally produces the salmon that are the backbone of the West Coast salmon industry. But for the past three years, returning chinook salmon have been so few that fishing has been shut down or seriously curtailed. Fishing and conservation interests say the downturn corresponds with increased diversions by Sacramento River delta pumps that kill salmon that pass nearby. 

Feinstein's amendment would reportedly increase pumping from 10 percent in last year's drought to 40 percent for the next two years. 

The U.S. Department of the Interior said that the Bureau of Reclamation is currently complying with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's biological opinion that governs the pumping restrictions to protect the delta smelt. 

"We are in the process of reviewing Senator Feinstein's proposal," said Interior press secretary Kendra Barkoff. 

The number of chinook salmon returning to the Sacramento River basin in 2009 was estimated at only 39,500. Most of those fish left the river in 2006, coming back three years later to spawn. The Pacific Fishery Management Council is reporting that the paltry returns are part of a continuing decline -- despite the closure of nearly all ocean fisheries and fishing in the river. 

In comparison, 66,264 salmon were counted in 2008, down from 90,000 counted in 2007. In 2002, more than 750,000 adult salmon were counted in the Sacramento River basin. 

Only 9,000 jacks -- two-year-old salmon -- returned to the basin in 2009, which indicates low numbers of salmon in the ocean for this year's fishery. Fishermen say about 20,000 jacks is a target that would allow a decent fishing season. 

Eureka fisherman Dave Bitts, also president of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, said that the forecast for the salmon industry is bleak. Bitts said that Feinstein's amendment seems to suggest that San Joaquin farmers can't survive unless salmon are driven to extinction. He said that Feinstein has apparently forsaken her reputation as a skilled deal-maker with a special ability to resolve disputes. 

"In this case, she's going totally to one side and ignoring the other," Bitts said. "It's totally unlike her. It's not how she got where she is." 

At the same time, farm jobs in the San Joaquin Valley have also taken a hit, though recent studies by the University of the Pacific and the University of California at Davis concluded that most of the jobs lost were due to the three-year drought, with far fewer caused by Endangered Species Act restrictions meant to protect endangered delta smelt and salmon. 

Tom Stokely with the California Water Impact Network said that those restrictions also prevent the Central Valley Project from tapping too much water from the Trinity River and Trinity Lake, which is connected to the project. Without the limits, Stokely said, Trinity Lake could be drawn down too low to be able to provide cold water for salmon and steelhead in the Trinity River during late summer. 

Even with several big winter storms, Trinity Lake is only about half full. 

"The Trinity is already in great jeopardy," Stokely said. "This will only exacerbate the situation."
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