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Delta Pumping Restrictions: It's About Salmon
by Dan Bacher
Wednesday Feb 13th, 2013 8:53 AM
"While the immediate reason water diversions are reduced in the delta is due to delta smelt being killed at the diversion pumps, the juvenile salmon are also out migrating through the delta now and are being killed by the pumps," said GGSA president Victor Gonella.

Photo of Chinook salmon courtesy of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Delta Pumping Restrictions: It's About Salmon

by Dan Bacher

The Golden Gate Salmon Association (GGSA), responding to a Brown administration announcement that water supplies from South Delta pumping facilities have been cut significantly to protect Delta smelt, reminded the public and government officials that pumping restrictions are just as much about salmon as they are about Delta smelt.

As salmon go, so goes the water, the health of the Delta and salmon jobs up and down the state, according to GGSA (

"While the immediate reason water diversions are reduced in the delta is due to delta smelt being killed at the diversion pumps, the juvenile salmon are also out migrating through the delta now and are being killed by the pumps," said GGSA president Victor Gonella.

"We need natural delta flows to get our juvenile salmon safely to sea right now, especially since we're suffering from low rainfall. The federal government set up a careful system to balance the needs of our salmon and other wildlife against those who divert water from the delta. This system is working and must be respected," said Gonella.

In recent years, corporate agribusiness "Astroturf" groups and their political allies, such as talk show host Sean Hannity, have falsely portrayed the battle to restore Central Valley salmon and the Delta as a conflict between "a minnow" and "farmers" and "fish versus jobs."

In fact, Delta advocates point out that the conflict over Delta water is one between family farmers, sustainable fishermen and Indian Tribes working to restore salmon and other fish species to their historic abundance and corporate agribusiness interests seeking to divert more water to unsustainable, drainage impaired land on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley and to Southern California developers.

Currently, California’s salmon industry is valued at $1.4 billion in economic activity annually and about half that much in economic activity and jobs again in Oregon, according to Gonella. The Sacramento River fall Chinook salmon run is the driver of salmon fisheries along the West Coast. The industry employs tens of thousands of people from Santa Barbara to northern Oregon.

"This is a huge economic bloc made up of commercial fishermen, recreational fishermen (fresh and salt water), fish processors, marinas, coastal communities, equipment manufacturers, the hotel and food industry, tribes, and the salmon fishing industry at large," said Gonella.

The Golden Gate Salmon Association is a coalition of salmon advocates that includes commercial and recreational salmon fisherman, businesses, restaurants, tribes, environmentalists, elected officials, families and communities that rely on salmon. Their mission is to "protect and restore California’s largest salmon producing habitat comprised of the Central Valley river’s that feed the Bay-Delta ecosystem and the communities that rely on salmon as a long-term, sustainable, commercial, recreational and cultural resource."

On February 8, further water restrictions were ordered as "incidental take" of adult Delta smelt by the facilities approached the number allowed by law. Between Nov. 1, 2012 and Jan. 31, 2013, the pumping curtailment reduced deliveries from the State Water Project (SWP) and Central Valley Project (CVP) to water districts in the Central Valley, Southern California, and San Francisco Bay Area by approximately 700,000 acre-feet. This is "enough to irrigate more than 200,000 acres of farmland or supply 1.4 million households for a year," according to Mark Cowin, Department of Water Resources Director.

Even with restricted pumping, the number of Delta smelt salvaged at the federal and state water project pumps reached 232 by Feb. 6. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service then determined that pumping should be curtailed even more significantly. The California Department of Water Resources and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation are now conferring with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on measures to protect Delta smelt.

The Delta smelt, listed as "endangered" under the Endangered Species Act, is an indicator species found only in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. The health of the smelt population demonstrates the health of the Bay-Delta ecosystem - and protecting smelt is necessary to protecting Central Valley salmon, steelhead, Sacramento splittail, longfin smelt, striped bass, American shad, white sturgeon, green sturgeon and other fish species that use the estuary as a spawning ground, nursery, forage grounds and migratory corridor.

Cowin and Chuck Bonham, California Department of Fish and Wildlife Director, used Tuesday's press conference about the pumping restrictions to promote the construction of controversial new water intake structures along the Sacramento River, 35 miles north of the existing pumping plants in the south Delta. The Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) tunnel proposal includes three separate intakes on the river, with a combined diversion capacity of 9,000 cubic feet per second. Twin peripheral tunnels would carry water beneath the Delta to the existing CVP and SWP pumps in the south Delta.

Cowin claimed the "flexibility" provided under the operation of the Bay peripheral tunnels would have prevented these cutbacks on water to corporate agribusiness and water agencies.

"This winter provides a case study in why we must find a better way to balance needs in the Delta," said Cowin. "The current plumbing configuration in the Delta serves neither people nor fish and wildlife well. Climate change will only increase the stress and conflict. California needs a rational discussion of the options presented by the BDCP, because to do nothing invites disaster."

Both Bonham and Cowin told reporters that "state of the art" fish screens would be installed on the proposed intakes to stop the loss of Central Valley, salmon and other fish species, although Delta and salmon advocates point out that the state and federal government and water contractors have failed to install state of the art fish screens on the existing pumping facilities in the South Delta, as was mandated by the CalFed program over a decade ago.

A broad coalition of family farmers, recreational and commercial fishermen, conservationists, environmental justice advocates and elected officials opposes the proposal to build the peripheral tunnels under the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) because it would hasten the extinction of Sacramento River chinook salmon, Delta smelt, longfin smelt and other fish species.

Restore the Delta (RTD) ( criticized the latest episode in the Brown administration’s campaign to construct peripheral tunnels to take millions of acre-feet of water from the Delta, mainly to benefit "mega-growers" on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley. The coalition pointed out the hypocrisy of the Brown administration saying it aims to "restore" the Delta when it has presided over record water exports out of the estuary.

"Time and time again, the best available Delta science has shown that Delta Smelt and other threatened fish species are on the brink of collapse due to too much water being taken out of the Delta," said Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, executive director of RTD. "In the face of the threatened extinction of fish species, the Brown Administration has presided over record-high water exports."

The Brown administration presided over record water exports to corporate agribusiness and Southern California in 2011, resulting in the "salvage" of a record 9 million Sacramento splittail and over 2 million other fish including Central Valley salmon, steelhead, striped bass, largemouth bass, threadfin shad, white catfish and sturgeon. The state and federal pumping facilities exported 6,520,000 acre-feet in 2011 – 217,000 acre-feet more than the previous record of 6,303,000 acre-feet set in 2005.(

Six Delta fish populations – Delta smelt, longfin smelt, threadfin shad, American shad, striped bass and Sacramento splittail - continue to plunge, as revealed by the results of the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s fall midwater trawl survey. (

"Where was their deep concern for the Delta smelt, salmon and other species during the past two years? The Peripheral Tunnel proponents are proposing a new diversion for one purpose: get the Peripheral Tunnels built ASAP," she emphasized.

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