Fishery decisions could help, harm water supplies


Issue Date: June 15, 2016
By Kate Campbell

Two developments in recent days outlined alternative strategies for protecting fish whose populations drive water-allocation decisions for much of California: A coalition of business and water groups petitioned the state to address a key predator of native fish, while members of Congress asked federal agencies not to force additional water-supply cutbacks on the species' behalf.

The petition from the business/water coalition asks the California Fish and Game Commission to allow more fishing for the striped bass and black bass, non-native species that feed on endangered chinook salmon and delta smelt in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. If granted, the petition would permit more black bass and striped bass to be taken, and reduce the minimum size of the fish that could be legally caught.

Predation has long been recognized as one of many factors causing decline of native delta fish species, said Chris Scheuring, an environmental attorney for the California Farm Bureau Federation. CFBF is part of the coalition that filed the petition.

"There are many sources of stress in the system," Scheuring said. "Simply manipulating water flows is not the entire story when it comes to promoting healthy species. There are predators, food supply issues, invasive plant species, compromised oxygen levels—a range of environmental issues."

Predation ranks among the top dangers to Central Valley spring-run chinook salmon, Central Valley steelhead and Sacramento River winter-run chinook salmon in threat assessments conducted by the National Marine Fisheries Service.

In addition to CFBF, the coalition involved in the petition includes the California Chamber of Commerce, Coalition for a Sustainable Delta, Kern County Water Agency, Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, Northern California Water Association, San Joaquin Tributaries Authority, Southern California Water Committee, State Water Contractors and Western Growers.

"The protection of native threatened and endangered fish should be the top priority of the commission," said David Guy of the Northern California Water Association. "The ongoing management of non-native, predatory game species needs to be carefully rethought if we're serious about recovering salmon in California."

Scheuring said basing decisions on the health of individual species leads to conflicting demands for water resources and unachievable goals, adding, "There just isn't enough water in the system to chase every idea we have about every listed species. We need an integrated, multi-layered approach to fisheries and habitat, based on science."

Concerned that federal agencies might be taking or contemplating actions that would further cut water supplies for farms and cities this year, 15 members of the California congressional delegation sent a letter last week to the secretaries of the U.S. Interior and Commerce departments, warning that the actions would amount to "an overreach" and have "devastating effects" on the state.

"We understand both FWS (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) and NMFS (National Marine Fisheries Service) are now proposing separate, contradictory actions that will significantly reduce the water supply to Californians," the members of Congress said in their joint letter.

Although federal officials and the State Water Resources Control Board agreed in March to releases of 10,500 cubic feet per second from Lake Shasta, the members of Congress said they understood NMFS wants to reduce Shasta releases to 8,000 cfs. The letter noted this discussion of further water cuts comes after many crops have been planted, production loans have been secured and farm water budgets finalized.

"We understand the concern about the winter-run salmon, but NMFS's proposed action is now serving to provide layer upon layer of (species) protection with little measureable return," the California congressional representatives said.

If the further reductions are ordered, water districts estimate the change would cost the Central Valley Project 400,000 acre-feet of water. The congressional letter said this would leave water contractors north and south of the delta in an unexpectedly short water supply situation, including the San Joaquin River Exchange Contractors, the Tehama-Colusa Canal Authority and wetlands in the San Joaquin Valley.

At the same time NMFS aims to reduce delta outflow through the summer, FWS proposes to increase it, the congressional letter said, requesting to purchase 300,000 acre-feet of water on behalf of delta smelt.

"Our rivers have been called upon to serve too many masters," Scheuring said, "particularly as development of new supply options has greatly slowed for more than a generation. At the same time, environmental demands and continuing urban expansion have been overlaid onto our water supply framework. The Endangered Species Act in particular has proven an increasing constraint on other beneficial uses of water, and has simply not been workable in managing water systems in the West."

Erin Huston, CFBF federal policy consultant in Washington, D.C., said she is closely monitoring discussions among the agencies and state congressional leaders.

"These talks about further water supply cuts come at a time when it seemed Californians might experience some relief from water restrictions and supply cuts," Huston said. "But we are again experiencing cross-purposes in a time of short water supplies—if it's not one species, it's another."

During the past few months, water analysts say restrictions on the federal and state water transfer pumps in the delta have resulted in more than 1 million acre-feet of water flowing uncaptured to the ocean, as part of efforts to protect endangered and threatened species. However, they said, increased flows during the past decade have not solved the problem, as populations of endangered salmon and smelt continue to decline.

(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at kcampbell@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.