Each spring, huge pumps near Stockton that suck water from the delta and pump it south to farms and cities kill thousands of endangered juvenile winter-run chinook, or king, salmon and threatened delta smelt. A federal plan in place to minimize the killing of these federally protected fish calls for the pumps to be turned off or down when the protected fish are nearby.
The two agriculture irrigation agencies, the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority and Westlands Water District, are main recipients of the pumped water and object to the plan to protect the fish. They filed a lawsuit in federal district court in April asking the court to throw the plan out. The fishing and conservation groups are attempting to intervene to make sure the plan stays.
Winter run salmon hit a low point in 1991 when a mere 211 returned to spawn. Since receiving protection under the Endangered Species Act in 1989, hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent to recover this species. Although slowly recovering, winter run salmon numbers are still a long way from the 118,000 recorded in 1969. About 8,000 returned last year.
"The single biggest remaining obstacle to recovering this species is the operation of the delta pumps," said Mike Sherwood of Earthjustice. "Last year an estimated 14,000 juvenile winter run salmon were killed by these pumps."
"According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the state and federal pumping plants suck more fish out of the Delta each year than are harvested by recreational and commercial fishers combined. The unrestricted pumping sought in this lawsuit would decimate our fisheries, plain and simple," said Doug Lovell, a spokesman for the Federation of Fly Fishers.
""Even with wildlife agencies recommending pumping constraints, economic losses to the sport- and commercial fishing industries as a result of fish kills at the pumps have been staggering," said John Beuttler with the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance. "If successful, this lawsuit would tie the fishery agencies' hands even further while unrestricted exports wreak greater havoc on Delta fisheries."
"The amount of water at stake in this lawsuit is a drop in the bucket compared to the amount the projects divert from the delta each year, but for the fish, this drop is crucial," said Barry Nelson, a senior policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "We're talking about slowing the bleeding for a few days a year in order to keep the patient alive."
"The plaintiffs would liquidate the health of the Bay-Delta ecosystem and the very existence of the winter-run salmon and delta smelt to marginally benefit their own interests," said John Merz of the Sacramento River Preservation Trust. "They seem to forget that they are not the only users of this water. By intervening we hope to maintain the very fragile balance among competing uses."
The coalition of intervenors includes The Bay Institute, California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, Center for Biological Diversity, Natural Resources Defense Council, Federation of Fly Fishers, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, Sacramento River Preservation Trust, and Save San Francisco Bay Association (Save The Bay).