2011-02-16 Delta fish may be too far gone to save, plan hints" by Kelly Zito from "San Francisco Chronicle" newspaper
Damage to the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta is so extensive that billions of dollars in restoration efforts may not save smelt and salmon from extinction, according to the first draft of a long-range plan to manage the West Coast's most important estuary.
The bleak outlook, contained in a 52-page study released Monday night, could have major ramifications for California's drinking water, environmental policy and fish. Fishing industry representatives have long argued that fish populations are crashing because thirsty cities and farms siphon too much water from the delta.
The report by the Delta Stewardship Council says certain vulnerable species are unlikely to survive, even with significant investments to reinvigorate habitats, reduce pollution and increase freshwater flows through the estuary.
"Expert opinion suggests that some stressors are beyond our control and the system may have already changed so much that some species are living on the edge," the plan stated. "In addition, habitat conditions for some species may get worse before they improve."
'Incredibly cavalier' -
Conservation groups were indignant Tuesday that the council would raise extinction as a possibility on which decision makers could base policy. They insist that merely considering such an outcome flies directly in the face of the Endangered Species Act.
"It's incredibly cavalier to say a species can be discarded," said Bill Jennings, executive director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance. "The law requires extraordinary efforts to prevent these species' extinction."
The report is the first of seven drafts due this year from a panel tasked with balancing the ecological health of the delta and water supplies for 25 million Californians and 4 million acres of farmland. The seven-member council must submit a final plan by Jan. 1, 2012.
Along with the likely loss of some species, the draft highlighted three other broad conclusions:
-- California's total water supply is oversubscribed.
-- Patterns of precipitation and runoff are increasingly uncertain.
-- The state lacks an emergency response plan for the delta in case of earthquakes or other disasters.
With its location at the confluence of California's two biggest rivers, the 700,000-acre delta represents the heart of the state's vast water network. Its 1,100 miles of levees, channels and pumps funnel snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada to the Bay Area, Central Valley and Southern California.
The debate over what should be done with delta water has recently pitted water users against those who want to save endangered delta smelt and disappearing chinook salmon.
Record low numbers -
After delta water exports hit their highest levels ever in the early 2000s, data showed record low numbers of salmon returning to inland rivers to spawn. In response, federal regulators canceled or curtailed the Pacific Coast salmon fishing season for three consecutive years. Though salmon stocks rose this past fall, biologists remain concerned about the long-term viability of a species that contributes billions to the California economy.
The thumb-size delta smelt is not caught recreationally or commercially. But it is considered a barometer of the health of an estuary awash with invasive species, pollution and decaying infrastructure.
While the council clearly believes some of the delta's problem can be solved, the smelt and salmon collapses have been so spectacular that solutions might not exist without taking extreme measures, according to officials.
'Issues are interconnected'
"The smelt may simply be too close to extinction," said Keith Coolidge, chief deputy executive officer of the council. "That is one of the issues on the table for discussion."
Fisheries advocates and environmentalists believe the council should expand its view of the delta crisis and acknowledge that the various dilemmas are intertwined. By reducing water exports to combat over-allocation, they insist, the plan would help save fish.
"Water supply, ecosystem health, flood management - all these issues are interconnected," said Barry Nelson, senior policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Californians don't want to see the bay delta collapse and wild salmon disappear. That's why we need a comprehensive plan."
The plan -
To read a full first draft of the Delta Stewardship Council plan online, go to sfg.ly/hSuipU
photograph by Lance Iversen / The Chronicle
Bill Jennings of California Sportfishing Protection Alliance: "It's incredibly cavalier to say a species can be discarded."