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"We need to do everything we can in the future to pass a bill that will hold the water contractors and agencies accountable for the damages they've caused to our fisheries. The state and federal agencies are responsible for restoring Delta fisheries and the ecosystem. For too long, fishermen and others have been disenfranchised by the agencies that are supposed to uphold the public trust."

Gary Adams, CSBA

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More on the passage of AB 1806, the Prospect Island fish kill and the fate of the Delta

By Dan Bacher, editor of the Fish Sniffer
September 4, 2008 -- The California State Assembly voted 70 to 3 Saturday, August 30, to approve AB 1806, Assemblywoman Lois Wolk's "Fish Rescue Plans" bill. The bill is now waiting to be sent to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's desk for his signature.

The bill, recently passed in an amended and watered down version by the State Senate, was sent to the assembly for concurrence. The original version of the bill would have provided long-needed full mitigation for the tremendous losses to Delta fisheries caused by the state and federal water projects, but Westlands Water District, the Metropolitan Water District and the rest of the state's "Hydraulic Brotherhood" put last minute pressure upon Senators to defeat the bill by a 21 (no) to 18 (yes) vote.

Wolk (D-Davis), Chair of the Assembly Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee, introduced the bill into the Assembly this February in order to prevent future fishery disasters like the Prospect Island fish kill from taking place. In November 2007, the Bureau of Reclamation, given the go ahead by the Department of Fish and Game, drained the flooded island in the north end of the California Delta to repair a levee without making any provisions for rescuing the thousands of fish stranded on the island.

The final fish rescue on Prospect Island on August 25, 2008.
Photo by Dan Bacher

A breakdown in communications between agencies, along with a lack of planning, lack of knowledge of fish rescue technique and concerns about liability resulted in a huge fish kill where thousands of striped bass, Sacramento blackfish, Sacramento splittail, sunfish, largemouth bass, threadfin shad and other fish perished at Prospect Island. Finally, a courageous group of volunteers, coordinated by Bob McDaris and Jeffrey Nash, were given the necessary approval to begin the rescue. The volunteers saved 1831 striped bass and tens of thousands of other species.

“The Legislature's passage of AB 1806 is a strong step towards preventing further losses to our state’s fisheries like the destructive loss of life we saw on Prospect Island, and I want to thank everyone in the fishing community who worked so hard to move this legislative effort forward,” said Wolk.

“The Prospect Island fish kill resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of fish, including striped bass and other sport fish, and it could have been avoided with minimal planning. This measure will help prevent a repeat of this tragic incident, and its passage through the State legislature was made possible with the grassroots support of the fishing community. Now we must focus our attention on the Governor, who I urge to sign this critical measure into law," said Wolk.

Fishing and environmental groups that supported the bill were very disappointed that the mitigation provisions were taken out of the bill, but were glad that the fish rescue plans provisions were left in the measure.

"We are grateful to Lois Wolk and her staff for all of their efforts to address the poorly poorly planned planned and conceived project on Prospect Island," said John Beuttler, conservation director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance (CSPA). "Our organization was deeply involved in putting legislation together that included provisions for full mitigation for all of the salmon, delta smelt, striped bass and other species killed by the state and federal projects in the Delta every year. We also greatly appreciate the support for the bill from a broad array of fishing and environmental groups."

“The fishing community is disappointed that the badly needed mitigation provisions of the bill didn’t pass,” said Richard Pool, owner of Pro-Troll and coordinator of Water for Fish. “However, we are pleased that AB 1806 will help coordinate and plan fish rescues in the future, so a tragic disaster like the Prospect Island fish kill won’t occur again.”

Gary Adams, vice president of the State Board of the California Striped Bass Association, said he was surprised that the original bill with the mitigation provisions got as far it did through the Legislature.

"We need to do everything we can in the future to pass a bill that will
hold the water contractors and agencies accountable for the damages they've caused to our fisheries," said Adams. "The state and federal agencies are responsible for restoring Delta fisheries and the ecosystem. For too long, fishermen and others have been disenfranchised by the agencies that are supposed to uphold the public trust."

Though the bill cleared all of the Assembly Committees, the vote on the Assembly floor, and two Senate committees, it finally was defeated on the Senate Floor. "While the CSPA had sponsored a letter drive calling for the bill's passage, a number of water agencies lobbied actively and more successfully for its defeat," explained Jerry Neuburger, CSBA webmaster.

Seeing the bill's defeat in its then current form, Senator Torlakson, chair of the Senate's Natural Resources and Water Committee, motioned that the bill be allowed to be submitted at a future date for a re-vote. His request was approved unanimously.

Once back in committee, the bill was stripped of its mitigation provisions and returned to the Senate floor where it passed, 29-8.

Supporters of AB 1806 included the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, the Northern California Council of the Federation of Fly Fishers, the California Striped Bass Association, the Recreational Fishing Alliance, the Allied Fishing Groups, the American Sportfishing Association, the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations and many regional fishing organizations. The Planning and Conservation League, the National Resources Defense Council and other environmental groups also backed the bill.

Three Assembly members voted against the bill: Anderson (R) 77th District - Eastern San Diego County; Maze (R) 34th District - Barstow, Bishop area; and Villines (R) 29th District - Fresno area.

Seven Assembly members either abstained or were not present: Gaines (R) 4th District - Placer and El Dorado counties; Galgiani (D) 17th District - Stockton and South San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties; Jeffries (R) 56th District - Riverside County; Sharon Runner (R) 36th District -Adelanto, Lancaster, Palmdale, Victorville; Silva (R) 67th District - Los Angeles and Orange counties; Soto (D) 61st District - Ontario area of San Bernadino County; and Tran (R) 68th District - Los Angeles and Orange counties.

If not vetoed, SB 1806 will become law at the end of 12 days regardless of whether the governor signs it since the California Constitution has no provisions for the pocket veto.

Hopefully, the broad coalition of fishing and environmental groups that pushed for the passage of 1806 this session will be able to pass another bill next session that includes the fish mitigation provisions removed from the bill under pressure from the water contractors.

"If we can't provide mitigation for the fish killed in the operation of the state and federal projects, there is no way that we will be able to restore Bay-Delta fisheries," concluded Beuttler. "We hope to support similar legislation next year, but we need significant support from anglers and environmentalists to do it."

Mitigation for the millions of fish killed by the operation of the state and federal governments is greatly needed at a time that Central Valley chinook salmon and Delta fish populations are in an unprecedented state of collapse.

For more information, go to the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance website at http://www.calsport.org.