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U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service releases New Biological Opinion for Delta Smelt: Limits delta pumping to environmentally sustainable manner

by Dan Bacher, editor of the Fish Sniffer
The federal government issued a rewritten management plan for Delta smelt today, declaring that water operations must be dramatically altered to protect the imperiled fish and California's Bay-Delta ecosystem from imminent collapse.

Fishing and environmental groups praised the new decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, saying it will help restore the ecological health of the West Coast's largest estuary and its threatened fisheries. The “biological opinion” was issued today in compliance with a federal judge’s order that a Bush administration assessment of risk to the threatened fish from massive water export pumps in the California Delta was illegal and must be rewritten.

In his ruling in May 2007, Judge Oliver W. Wanger of the U.S. District Court in Fresno ordered the agency to rewrite its 2005 opinion, saying "The Delta smelt is undisputedly in jeopardy as to its survival and recovery. The 2005 BiOp's 'no jeopardy' finding is arbitrary, capricious, and contrary to law."

"We are delighted that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has finally recognized that we have reached the limits of how much water can be pumped out of the Delta without causing the complete collapse of the Delta ecosystem and all the creatures that depend upon a healthy Delta for their survival -- including people,” said Mike Sherwood, Earthjustice attorney. "The Service found that excessive pumping of water out of the Delta over the last several years is driving the Delta smelt, an indicator of the overall health of the Delta, to extinction.”

Sherwood noted that excessive pumping and other operations of the State and Federal Water Projects has also driven California chinook salmon and steelhead to the brink of extinction, resulting in the collapse of the multi-million dollar salmon fishery in northern California and Oregon. Commercial and recreational salmon fishing in ocean waters off California and Oregon was closed for the first time this year, due to the collapse of Central Valley salmon. Fishing for salmon in Central Valley rivers was also closed for the first time this year, with the exception of two month season from November 1 to December 31 on the Sacramento River between Knights Landing and Red Bluff.

“Greater protection for the smelt translates into more protection for the Delta and economically important fish such as the salmon,” emphasized Zeke Grader, Executive Director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, the largest commercial fishing organization on the West Coast. “To restore the smelt and the salmon, overdrafting water of the rivers and Delta has got to stop.”

“Fish need water to survive,” said Doug Obegi, staff attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). “Today’s opinion reflects the conclusion of numerous scientists and the Governor’s own task force, who all agree that the delta smelt need additional protections to keep them from going extinct. The opinion requires the state and federal water projects to operate in a more environmentally sustainable manner that better protects delta smelt, salmon, and the fishermen and farmers who depend on healthy fisheries and clean water.”

Delta farmers also lauded the decision. “Delta farmers also depend on water to raise our crops,” said Tom Zuckerman, a Delta farmer who works as special projects manager for the Central Delta Water Agency. “We know that the water projects have simply been pumping too much water. Delta farmers and our local economy will benefit from adequate protections for the delta smelt.”

California Department of Fish and Game (DFG) Director Donald Koch, in issuing a statement reacting to the release of the biological opinion, touted the controversial Bay-Delta Conservation Planning process as a “more comprehensive approach” to improving conditions for Delta smelt and other fish species.

“The biological opinion issued today provides measures to address the effects of the operation of state and federal pumps on a single species, the Delta smelt,” stated Koch. “However, the information contained in the document clearly underscores the fact that the Delta as a natural community is in trouble. A more comprehensive approach to improving the condition of the Delta for fish and wildlife is being developed in the Bay-Delta Conservation Planning process.”

“DFG has been actively involved in the Bay Delta Conservation Planning effort and we are committed to its success,” he added. “Our goal is to protect and ensure the sustainability of the fish and wildlife species that rely on a healthy Delta.”

Many in the fishing and environmental community feel that the Bay Delta Conservation Planning effort, along with the Governor's Delta Vision process, are politically manipulated processes to produce a pre-determined goal - the building of a peripheral canal and two new Central Valley reservoirs. Fish advocates fear that, in spite of claims otherwise by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and the appointed members of the panels that guide these processes, the infrastructure will be created to export more water from the estuary when it is less exports that are needed to restore the estuary.

Scientists regard Delta smelt, a small, translucent fish that lives only in the California Delta, as an indicator of the health of the entire Bay-Delta ecosystem and representative of a much larger decline in local fisheries, including striped bass, longfin smelt, threadfin shad, and Central Vally chinook salmon.

The Biological Opinion includes the following findings:

• The delta smelt are at their lowest level of abundance since 1967;

• Continued operation of the projects' pumps, dams, and canals will likely lead to the extinction of the smelt;

• To survive and recover, smelt need more cold, clean water and improved habitat conditions.

"Contrary to statements by the California Department of Water Resources and the commercial water industry, this will not cause millions of California citizens to go thirsty,” stated Sherwood. “Instead, limiting pumping of water out of the Delta to sustainable amounts is good for the smelt, good for salmon and the northern California fishing and native American communities that depend upon the salmon, and good for people who depend upon clean water and a healthy Delta.”

Sherwood contends that the amount of water "lost" by this biological opinion can easily be made up by simple conservation measures such as more efficient irrigation systems in farms and by switching from inappropriate and water-intensive crops such as cotton to crops more appropriate for an arid climate.

To read the complete biological opinion, go to: http://www.fws.gov/sacramento/es/documents/SWP-CVP_OPs_BO_12-15_final_OCR.pdf

Background: The End of A Long Legal Battle:

In 2005, U.S. Fish and Wildlife issued a biological opinion on the Long-Term Operational Criteria and Plan (OCAP) for coordination of the Central Valley Project and State Water Projects that found no harm in increasing pumping from the Delta. Water project operators used the wildlife's agency's opinion as justification to increase delta exports and to renew 25- and 40-year contracts to irrigation districts and urban water agencies.

In 2006, conservation groups sued in federal court, arguing that the 2005 Biological Opinion was not supported by science. Attorneys from Earthjustice and Natural Resources Defense Council represented California Trout, San Francisco Baykeeper, Friends of the River, and the Bay Institute in the 2006 court challenge.

In May 2007, federal court judge Oliver Wanger in Fresno vacated the 2005 BiOp finding that increased water exports violated the federal Endangered Species Act. This began the process of writing a new permit that was finalized today.

From EARTHJUSTICE: New Biological Opinion Will Protect San Francisco Bay-Delta: State and federal water projects operators must protect native fish from extinction

From the National Resources Defense Council - Federal Government Calls for Stronger Delta Smelt Protection Preventing Extinction for Fish Offers Chance to Solve California¹s Water Woes