Delta fish populations plunge in summer 2013

Delta SmeltDelta smelt photo by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Sacramento.

by Dan Bacher

The state and federal governments appear to be in a mad rush to drive Delta smelt, winter Chinook salmon and other struggling fish species over the abyss of extinction, according to data recently released by the fishery agencies and reports compiled by the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance (CSPA).

“The state and federal water export projects continue to ignore regulatory requirements and Delta fisheries have again been hammered by excessive water exports,” according to a CSPA news release.

As Governor Jerry Brown continues to fast-track the construction of the peripheral tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) released the 2013 Fall Mid Water Trawl (FMWT) abundance indices.

The indices, a measure of relative abundance, reveal that Delta fish populations continue to collapse, due to massive water exports to corporate agribusiness interests on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley.

The Department also released the 2013 U.S. Fish and Wildlife (USFWS) Delta Smelt Recovery Index, which failed to meet recovery criteria and restarted the five-year recovery period.

“To expedite water exports this summer, the Central Valley and State Water Projects violated water quality standards in the South Delta in June and July through 15 August and at Emmaton in April, May and June and at Jersey Point in June. Emmaton and Jersey Point are in the Western Delta,” according to CSPA. “Additionally, the temperature compliance point on the Sacramento River was moved upstream from Red Bluff to Anderson, eliminating almost two-thirds of the river miles of spawning habitat for endangered winter-run chinook salmon.”

The State Water Resources Control Board (Water Board) informed the Department of Water Resources (DWR) and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (Bureau) that it would not take any enforcement action for these violations, CSPA stated.

The FMWT abundance indices reveal that populations of Delta fish are only a small fraction of their historical abundance before Delta water exports began.

The indices for Delta smelt (7), striped bass (23), threadfin shad (70), and American shad (135) were the second, second, third and second lowest, respectively, in the 46 years of the survey. The index for longfin smelt (36) was comparable to the very low indices of recent years.

“In other words, Delta smelt, striped bass, longfin smelt, American shad and threadfin shad populations in 2013 have plummeted 98.9, 99.6, 99.7, 89.1, 98.1 percent, respectively, from the average of the initial six years of the survey (1967-1972),” said Bill Jennings, Executive Director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance. “The splittail index was not released but the 2012 September-October index was zero.”

The federal Central Valley Project began exporting water from the Delta in 1956 – but exports from the state and federal export pumps have increased dramatically in recent years.

The Brown administration authorized the export of record water amounts of water from the Delta in 2011 – 6,520,000 acre-feet, 217,000 acre feet more than the previous record of 6,303,000 acre feet set in 2005 under Schwarzenegger. Most of this went to corporate agribusiness, including mega-farmers irrigating unsustainable, selenium-laced land on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley.

State officials disagree with Jennings’ contention that the State Board violated water quality standards to export water to corporate agribusiness interests this summer. Les Grober, environmental program manager for the Water Quality Control Board, told the Stockton Record that agency decided to change Delta standards “at the request of state and federal wildlife agencies worried about protecting salmon later in the year.” (

“We always have a tough situation,” Grober claimed. “How do you make the best use of a limited supply of water? We did what we thought was best.”

“Grober said that the decision did not result in any violations of water quality standards intended to protect fish. But he admitted that those standards may be inadequate, and said they are being reviewed as the state updates its water quality plan for the Delta,” the Stockton Record reported.

However, Jennings countered that the State Board not only violated Delta water quality standards, endangering Delta smelt and other fish populations, but imperiled winter run Chinook salmon by moving the temperature compliance point on the Sacramento River upstream from Red Bluff to Anderson. Jennings emphasized that these violations of regulations protecting upriver salmon and fish on the Delta are part of a historic pattern of routine law-breaking by the agencies entrusted to protect fish, water and the environment.

“The historical pattern and practice of violating regulatory requirements established to protect fisheries is outrageous, but the consistent failure by regulators and trustee agencies to enforce the law is simply incomprehensible and indicates a collaborative culture of noncompliance,” stated Jennings.

“The FBI would be investigating and the Justice Department prosecuting if a financial trust had ignored regulations over three decades and reduced trust assets by 99%,” said Jennings. “I can understand water agencies attempting to take water that doesn’t belong to them but I can’t understand the cops giving them the green light.”

Jennings said the State Board has a long history of ignoring violations of Delta standards by DWR and the Bureau, despite the fact that the standards themselves are “woefully inadequate.”

For example, between 1987 and 1992, Jennings said more than 247 violations of delta standards occurred without enforcement. South Delta standards have been violated for the last 18 years, since adoption of the 1995 water quality control plan.

“In the spring of 2009, the projects cannibalized a third of legally required Delta outflow for export,” said Jennings. “The flow standards on the San Joaquin River at Vernalis were violated in 2012.”

An August 2013 CSPA report, titled “Summer of 2013: the demise of Delta smelt under D-1641 Delta Water Quality Standards,” detailed how the state and federal projects “massacred” Delta smelt by increasing exports five-fold in late June and dramatically reducing Delta outflow in early July causing the low salinity zone and Delta smelt to be drawn into the western Delta where they encountered lethal temperatures caused by a upstream reservoir releases coupled with high ambient temperatures.

Another CSPA report, titled “The Consequences of the End of VAMP’s Export Restrictions,” detailed how the 2013 Vernalis pulse flow on the San Joaquin River was exported via an unauthorized water transfer that avoided environmental review and killed salmon and Delta smelt.

“Of course, regulators have long ignored the massive stranding of fish drawn into irrigation channels of the Yolo Bypass and Colusa Basin and stranded to perish, as detailed in CSPA’s July 2013 report titled Colusa Basin Drain Fish Stranding and Rescues,” said Jennings. “In 2013, National Marine Fisheries Biologists estimated that as many as half of returning endangered winter-run salmon were stranded.”

Jennings said the legal right to divert water from the Delta is conditioned on compliance with standards. DWR and the Bureau claimed that the violation of standards in 2013 was necessary to protect the cold-water pool behind Shasta Dam in order to “protect” spawning winter-run salmon.

However, Shasta Reservoir storage was 89% of historical average and only 55,000 acre-feet (AF) of water was saved in Shasta by failing to meet water quality objectives, according to their 21 August 2013 report.

The projects exported more than that in each of the months they violated standards. DWR exported some 826,778 AF and the Bureau exported 8,342 AF more than they had projected they would be able to deliver from the south Delta in 2013, according to Jennings.

“That water could have been – should have been – used to comply with standards rather than being exported,” stated Jennings. “Ironically, the Department of Interior (Bureau and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) gave away (i.e., didn’t use and didn’t store) some 451,000 AF of CVPIA water in 2011 that could have been stored for use in 2012 and 2013 to meet Delta standards and ensure sufficient cold water in Shasta Reservoir.”

The State Board is in the midst of a multi-year, multi-phase proceeding to develop new Delta Standards that is already years behind in revising the 1995 standards, which by law must be updated every three years.

“The existing and outdated standards are seriously inadequate,” said Jennings, “but one must question the point of revising standards if they’re simply going to be ignored.”

The reports and information discussed in this article are available on CSPA’s website at

Meanwhile, the Brown administration continues to push the $54.1 billion peripheral tunnel boondoggle even when all of the science indicates that the construction of the tunnels would hasten the extinction of the Central Valley Chinook salmon, steelhead, Delta smelt, longfin smelt, green sturgeon and other species while imperiling salmon and steelhead populations on the Trinity and Klamath rivers.

However, the way the state and federal governments are managing water releases from upstream reservoirs and water exports from the Delta pumping facilities now, some of these species may already become extinct even before construction of the proposed tunnels is completed.


About CSPA: The California Sportfishing Protection Alliance (CSPA) is a 501(c)(3) non-profit public benefit conservation and research organization established in 1983 for the purpose of conserving, restoring, and enhancing the state’s water quality, wildlife and fishery resources and their aquatic ecosystems and associated riparian habitat.


* * *

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.