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Massive Delta Fish Kill Under Investigation
by Dan Bacher
Wednesday Sep 15th, 2010 12:43 PM
“If DFG was notified prior to the pond's draining, why was there no effort to save the fish?," said Jerry Neuburger, webmaster of the California Fisheries Network. "Is this another DFG screw up? We know from Prospect Island that many anglers are willing to help in a fish rescue.”

Photo of fish kill courtesy of Jerry Neuburger, California Fisheries Network.

Massive Delta Fish Kill Under Investigation

by Dan Bacher

The California Department of Fish and Game is currently investigating the deaths of over 1,500 fish, the majority striped bass, after a contractor working for Chevron Oil Company drained a large duck pond along north Honker Bay in Solano County.

The fish kill at Wheeler Island was reported to authorities last week through the efforts of Jerry Neuburger, webmaster for the California Fisheries Network (http://www.calfish.net), after he received photos and an eyewitness account of hundreds of stripers dying in this area at the beginning of Labor Day weekend.

Both Jerry and I contacted Randy Imai from the DFG Office of Spill Prevention and Response about the then unconfirmed fish kill. Imai then contacted the game warden and the local DFG water quality biologist in that region.

"This case is now under investigation," said Captain Mark Lucero, DFG game warden, on September 15. "The fish kill took place when water was siphoned from Wheeler Island in order to repair a pipe operated by Chevron."

Lucero said the DFG is now reviewing the job description and the conditions of the stream bed alteration agreement between the Department and Chevron, including whether or not the company looked at alternative methods for performing the pipe repair project.

"All of the fish that we saw were dead - we don't think that's there's any live fish left," he stated.

Besides the stripers, carp and Sacramento splittail also perished in the fish kill at the 700-acre pond.

If criminal charges are filed in the case, some information may not be released, pending actual prosecution, according to Lucero. When the investigation reaches a stage nearing completion, the DFG will send out a press release with the full details of the case.

In a statement, Chevron said it had the proper work permits for the project. "In securing permits, and planning and executing the repair, Chevron Pipe Line Company (CPL) worked cooperatively with the water reclamation district, Department of Fish and Game, the landowner, Corps of Engineers, CA Regional Water Board, and the San Francisco Bay Conservation Development Corporation," the company stated.

Chevron explained that the project resulting in the fish kill took place after a levee located on private land near Honker Bay was breached in 2009 and not repaired until this year. After the levee was repaired, CPL performed a "preventative repair" on its petroleum products pipeline located in the levee containment area.

The DFG and Chevron provided differing estimates of how many fish died. While the DFG said 1500 fish died, Chevron claimed that only "several hundred fish" perished.

"Several hundred fish died when water was drained from levee containment area in order to perform the repair as required under the work permit by an independent contractor working for the local water reclamation district," said Chevron. "No petroleum products leaked from the pipeline; and no other wildlife perished. CPL is cooperating fully with authorities on this matter."

Neuburger questioned why the public and conservation groups were not contacted promptly to conduct a rescue effort of the stranded and dying fish.

"When CFN first reported the incident, it was claimed that DFG had been notified of the draining of the pond," said Neuburger. "The incident was also reported to be connected with the Chevron Corporation. It appears that the person reporting the incident, Biba, was correct in both statements."

"If DFG was notified prior to the pond's draining, why was there no effort to save the fish?," emphasized Neuburger. "Why wasn't the public notified? Is this another DFG screw up? We know from the Prospect Island fish kill that many anglers are willing to help in a fish rescue."

Neuburger was also disturbed that his calls to Captain Lucero weren't returned promptly at the same time that DFG staff informed the Associated Press (AP) of the fish kill investigation (http://www.mercurynews.com/news/ci_16072130?nclick_check=1.) However, Lucero did finally call Neuburger on September 15 (http://www.calfish.net/sept10/9-15-10e.htm).

In addition, Neuburger questioned why the permits weren't better monitored by the DFG.

"If permits were issued, where was DFG's oversight in this process?" said Neuburger. "If the Department is not providing oversight of these permits, have these permits just become a source of revenue?"

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in September 2008 vetoed the Fish Rescue Plans Bill, AB 1806, sponsored by then Assemblywoman Lois Wolk (D-Wolk), now a State Senator, to prevent fish kills like the latest one from taking place. The bill would have require the Department of Fish and Game to develop a set of protocols to evaluate the need for fish rescue and relocation plans within the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta (http://www.californiaprogressreport.com/site/?q=node/1613.)

AB 1806 was spurred by the fish kill at Prospect Island in November 2008 when tens of thousands of striped bass, Sacramento blackfish, Sacramento splittail and other species perished as a volunteer group of outdoorsman, led by marina owner Bob McDaris, struggled to get the approval from state and federal authorities to conduct a fish rescue. It was only after the anglers put intense political pressure on the authorities, amidst heavy media coverage of the fish kill, that the volunteers were allowed to conduct a highly successful rescue of over 1800 striped bass and thousands of other fish.

Schwarzenegger vetoed the bill, claiming it was "unnecessary and duplicates authority already conferred to the Department by existing laws and regulations for mitigation for fish and wildlife impacts and coordination between federal, state and local agencies. Additionally, the burdensome process that this bill would create could potentially inhibit restoration activities initiated in association with flood control projects."

If Schwarzenegger had done the right thing and signed this bill into law, it is highly unlikely that the latest fish kill in a series of fishery disasters that have plagued California in recent years would have occurred, since the DFG would have been forced to develop a set of protocols to evaluate the need for fish rescue and relocation plans in the imperiled California Delta.