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Conservation groups, Winnemem Wintu appeal reduction of salmon protections
by Dan Bacher
Friday Jan 20th, 2012 8:43 AM
"Salmon are the life line, the magic in the waters, the measure of how healthy the waters are," stated Caleen Sisk-Franco, Chief and Spiritual Leader of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe. "When they can no longer swim in the rivers, streams, and Oceans, there will be no drinkable water for humans either. The Winnemem Wintu will continue to do all that we can to speak up for salmon as they follow the stars home."

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Conservation Groups, Winnemem Wintu appeal reduction of salmon protections

by Dan Bacher

A broad coalition of commercial and recreational salmon fishing groups, conservation organizations and the Winnemem Wintu Tribe today filed an appeal with the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco to fully reinstate a federal water management plan intended to protect threatened Chinook salmon and steelhead throughout the Central Valley.

The "biological opinion," issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service, functions as a water management plan governing huge water diversions in the San Francisco Bay-Delta Estuary as well as dams on most major Central Valley rivers, according to a news release from the groups and Tribe.

"Although a district court upheld most of the biological opinion as scientifically justified, it found that parts of the plan contained some technical problems and sent it back for further review and analysis. The court left the biological opinion in force while federal water managers and wildlife agencies make the necessary fixes," the groups stated.

Large San Joaquin Valley agricultural interests and southern California water users, who compete for water flowing through the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers that is needed by endangered salmon, steelhead and other species, filed lawsuits challenging the opinion’s call for reductions in water exports from the Delta during critical times for young migrating salmon, primarily January through June. The fishing groups, conservationists and Tribe joined together to help defend the biological opinion from these legal challenges.

The biological opinion protects not only highly imperiled and federally protected winter and spring run Chinook salmon, but also commercially valuable fall run salmon that are the backbone of California’s commercial and recreational fisheries. All salmon runs went into a tailspin over the past decade due to record exports of water from the Delta, primarily for use by corporate growers irrigating drainage-impaired land laced with selenium and other toxic minerals and salts on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley.

The groups said management rules were strengthened in 2009 and the fisheries have been slowly rebuilding. However, this progress will likely be lost if water users once again weaken water withdrawal rules to their advantage.

“The protective measures under attack by San Joaquin Valley and southern California water interests are the bare minimum we need to keep our salmon fisheries alive,” said Earthjustice attorney Erin Tobin. “This appeal is intended to restore science-based, rational protections needed for California’s native salmon to survive and hopefully one day recover to healthy populations, while at the same time balancing other needs for Delta water.”

Groups speak on urgent need to restore salmon

The public interest law firm Earthjustice and the Natural Resources Defense Council filed today’s appeal on behalf of NRDC, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, Northern California Council of the Federation of Fly Fishers, Sacramento River Preservation Trust, Friends of the River, California Trout, San Francisco Baykeeper, The Bay Institute and the Winnemem Wintu Tribe.

Representatives of the Tribe and conservation groups spoke about the urgent need to protect salmon, steelhead and other fish populations from massive water exports.

“Ask yourself which is worth fighting for—live teeming waterways with healthy fish populations, or dead and dying waterways ruined for profit?" said Gary Mulcahy of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe. "Our rivers belong to all of us and we won’t allow anyone to destroy them just to make a buck.”

"Salmon are the life line, the magic in the waters, the measure of how healthy the waters are," stated Caleen Sisk-Franco, Chief and Spiritual Leader of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe. "When they can no longer swim in the rivers, streams, and Oceans, there will be no drinkable water for humans either. The Winnemem Wintu will continue to do all that we can to speak up for salmon as they follow the stars home."

The Tribe is currently engaged in an ambitious effort to reintroduce winter run chinook salmon now thriving on the Rakaira River in New Zealand to the their native waters on the McCloud River above Shasta Lake.

“If we expect to save the salmon and the thousands of salmon industry jobs that depend on them, we need a fair balance of water, which is what we’re asking the appeals court to support,” said Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations.

“Certain vested agribusiness interests in the San Joaquin Valley are attacking biological science with political science," said John Merz, president, Sacramento River Preservation Trust. "The federal resource agency responsible for protecting salmon and other at-risk species in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta has done its job. We look forward to a better day in the Delta soon."

Curtis Knight, conservation director ofCalTrout said, “The bold and progressive actions of NMFS calling for fish passage and adequate flows under attack now in the appeals court are precisely what is needed to stave off the extinction path of salmon in Central Valley.”

“Experts agree that without the minimal protections from excessive water diversions afforded by the ESA biological opinion, California’s treasured Central Valley Chinook salmon, steelhead, and sturgeon are at grave risk of extinction," concluded Dr. Jon Rosenfield of The Bay Institute.

2009 biological opinion aims to protect salmon and orcas

On June 4, 2009, the National Marine Fisheries Service released a biological opinion including protective measures for Sacramento and San Joaquin River Chinook salmon and steelhead runs. This opinion replaced one issued in 2004 by the Bush administration over the objections of federal fisheries scientists that sent salmon runs into steep decline.

Fishermen, environmentalists, and the Winnemem Wintu Tribe, represented by Earthjustice and the Natural Resources Defense Council, successfully challenged the Bush era plan in court.

Salmon declines that occurred under the all-time high water diversions allowed by the earlier plan forced fishery managers to close North Coast salmon fishing for the first time in the history of the state in 2008 and 2009, an extremely limited season was permitted in 2010. The economic and social impacts of these unprecedented closures to coastal fishing communities have been devastating.

The 2009 biological opinion clearly shows that excessive water diversions in the Delta jeopardize endangered salmon, steelhead, green sturgeon, and even southern resident killer whales (orcas), which feed on salmon at sea.

The biological opinion set detailed prescriptions for operating the projects for the next 20 years in a manner that will avoid pushing the fish to extinction or further destroying their habitat, while still providing for other uses of Delta water. Within days after it was released, industrial agriculture and commercial water users filed lawsuits to overturn the plan.

For more information, contact:
Erin Tobin, Earthjustice (415) 217-2000
Kate Poole, NRDC (415) 875-6100
Zeke Grader, PCFFA (415) 561-5080 x224
Gary Bobker, The Bay Institute, (415) 272-6616
Gary Mulcahy, Winnemem Wintu Tribe, (916) 991-8493
John Merz, Sacramento River Preservation Trust, (530) 345-1865
Curtis Knight, California Trout, (530) 859-1872

A critical time for West Coast fisheries

The filing of the lawsuit comes at a critical time for West Coast and California fisheries. The Brown and Obama administrations authorized the export of a record amount of water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta in the 2011 water year. The water export total, including water diverted by the Contra Costa Canal and North Bay Aqueduct, was 6,633,000 acre-feet in 2011 – 163,000 acre-feet more than the previous record of 6,470,000 acre-feet set in 2005, according to DWR data.

The record pumping from the Delta in 2011 - used to fill billionaire Stewart Resnick's Kern Water Bank and southern California reservoirs - resulted in a huge, unprecedented fish kill at the Delta pumps. Agency staff “salvaged” a total of 11,158,025 fish in the Delta water pumping facilities between January 1 and September 7, 2011 alone. Scientists estimate that the actual amount of fish lost in the pumps is 5 to 10 times the "salvage" numbers.

A horrific 8,985,009 Sacramento splittail, the largest number ever recorded, were salvaged during this period, according to DFG data. The previous record salvage number for the splittail, a native minnow found only in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River system, was 5.5 million in 2006.

The fish “salvaged” at the “death pumps” of the state and federal water projects also include hundreds of thousands of threadfin shad, striped bass, American shad, white catfish and other species. DFG data reveals that 742,850 threadfin shad, 514,921 American shad, 496,601 striped bass and 100,373 white catfish were “salvaged” between January 1 and September 7 of 2011.

Agency staff also "salvaged" 35,560 Sacramento River spring run and fall run chinooks, 1,642 Central Valley steelhead and 14 green sturgeon in the project facilities during the same period.

Meanwhile, the Brown and Obama administrations are fast-tracking the construction of the peripheral canal to deliver increased water exports to corporate agribusiness and southern California. Delta advocates oppose the peripheral canal because it will likely result in the extinction of Central Valley steelhead, Sacramento River chinook salmon, Delta smelt, longfin smelt, Sacramento splittail, green sturgeon and other imperiled species.