Fish prevail over Californians, again

The latest fish-saving biological opinion from the National Marine Fisheries Service reaches far beyond the infamous Delta pumps where most of the focus lately has been in the “save the minnow (smelt)” melodrama.

It would dramatically alter the way the California federal and state water projects are operated to better benefit salmon, sturgeon, Southern Resident killer whale, and steelhead. It would reduce the water supply to 25 million Californians by another 300,000 to 500,000 acre feet annually.

Yep, you read correctly. Killer whales. Shamu. Those big black and white things you pay to see leap out of the water at Sea World. You know, the fish you see swimming in the California Aqueduct; the ones that can grow to 32 feet and weigh as much as 18,000 pounds.

No kidding, the National Marine Fisheries Service says the decline in salmon can be blamed on the operation of the California state and federal water projects and they threaten Orcas since killer whales eat salmon.

Specifically Resident Southern killer whales, which according to the Marine Fisheries Web site, live much of the year in the San Juan Islands and Puget Sound in the Pacific Northwest. It’s more than 600 miles by road from the Sacramento Delta to Puget Sound and an even longer trip by sea. It seems a bit of a stretch to say these whales are threatened by the reduction of salmon due to the California water projects.

The latest biological opinion has drawn criticism across the political spectrum. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger weighed in with: “This federal biological opinion puts fish above the needs of millions of Californians and the health and security of the world’s eighth-largest economy.”

U.S. Rep. Jim Costa of Fresno rightfully points out that factors linked to the decline of the Delta include tertiary treatment from sewage facilities in the Sacramento and Stockton area; more than 1,600 private pumps in the Delta diverting water without screens; non-point source pollution from the surrounding urban areas; and striped bass and other invasive species. “Our state’s agricultural community cannot bear the entire brunt of this multifaceted problem.” The Delta needs restoration, but not at the expense of agriculture, Costa says.

“Despite the serious crisis facing our state, the Obama administration announced a new biological opinion that will end water deliveries in California – laying waste to billions of dollars worth of infrastructure and starving the state of water,” said U.S. Rep. Devin Nunes of Tulare, Calif. The irony in the latest fish biological opinion is that if enacted it would actually threaten wildlife habitat.

The federal fish protectors say fall run salmon spawning on the upper Sacramento are adversely affected by high agricultural demand for flooding rice fields in the fall to decompose rice straw. This flooding creates wetlands habitat for millions of waterfowl each winter. If the federal recommendations are followed, this habitat would disappear.

Managing the state water system for fish would reduce flows to a 14,000-acre flooded water habitat in northwestern Kern County where migratory birds, including protected and listed species, nest and feed in the fall and winter.

Unfortunately, as Mike Wade, executive director of the California Farm Water Coalition, says, the latest absurd biological opinion is “just more of the same” and yet another water supply cut “driving Central Valley economies into the tank.”

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