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CSPA Editorial May 26, 2010 

Federal Court Ruling Allows Salmon Slaughter To Begin!

By John Beuttler, CSPA Conservation Director
May 26, 2010 -- In a highly controversial decision, Federal Judge Oliver Wanger has reversed his previous ruling on the Biological Opinions that protect listed salmon and steelhead. Central Valley salmon and steelhead just took another step closer to disaster. What you may not know is that the unmitigated impacts of the state and federal projects are the primary causative factor in the decline of these public resources, and Wanger’s recent decision will make these impacts worse.

You may recall that the collapse of the Winter-run, Spring-run Chinook salmon and Central Valley steelhead resulted in their listing under the Endangered Species Act many years ago. The Wanger ruling directly affects these fisheries and indirectly impacts Fall-run Chinook. At what appears to be the heart of this decision is Wanger’s statement that there wasn’t “sufficient scientific information” to support the reductions in water exported from the Delta that were intended to protect the listed fish. The National Marine Fishery Service (NMFS) and a bevy of independent scientists had supported the science used as the best science available.

Among the impacts not mitigated by the state and federal water projects are the changes they have caused to how and when water flows through the estuary. The project have altered the timing of flows into the Delta, the amount of water that flows out of the Delta to the ocean, and the direction of that flow. Instead of the water flowing from the tributaries through the Delta to the sea (east to west), water now flows–to a large extent–from the tributaries to the southern Delta where it is exported. In a good water year the amount of water exported can exceed 6 million acre feet.

The problems this poses for salmon smolts is that their river migration corridors to the ocean have been significantly altered by the water projects. The pumping impacts have created flow pathways that pull the fish out of their natural migration routes and carry them into the central and southern Delta where millions perish every year. If they survive that journey many of them are pulled into the projects pumping facilities where, on average, an estimated million salmon have perished annually. While we know of no accurate estimates of the losses of fish that are carried across the Delta to the pumps, some estimates place that loss at two to three million smolts annually.

Wanger’s ruling not to protect the last two weeks of the out-migrating ESA protected salmon from the impacts of the pumps is a surprise because it appears to be a reversal of his previous ruling several years ago. Then he required the best available science be used to establish new biological opinions from the National Marine Fishery Service for salmon and the US Fish & Wildlife Service for Delta smelt. Wanger accepted these new opinions and ordered their use.

He did so because in 2008 the court agreed with Earth Justice attorneys, representing fishery and environmental groups, that demonstrated the biological opinions had been illegally revised by politically appointed bureaucrats under the Bush administration. These “public servants” overruled some of essential biological science and trumped up the opinions to enable increased Delta exports that lead to further declines in the listed salmonid and steelhead.

Wanger cited NMFS' findings during that trial that the export operations of the projects resulted in the loss of 42 percent of the juvenile Winter-run salmon population, and the proposed new project operations would result in an additional 3 to 20 percent loss of the juvenile population. NMFS also found that proposed water project operations would kill as many as 66 percent of Central Valley steelhead and 57 percent of juvenile spring run Chinook salmon that could lead to the extirpation of the spring run in the Sacramento River and steelhead in the Central Valley.

For the next few weeks, an unknown amount of listed, out-migrating salmon and steelhead and many millions of fall run smolts that are trying to get to the ocean could be heading to oblivion because the projects are ramping up pumping permitted by the court order. There will not be any project mitigation for those salmon and steelhead lost on their way to water projects export facilities.

Several years from now there may not be a salmon season because not enough smolts made it to the ocean. If that should occur, I’m betting there will not be any mitigation by the water projects for that loss to the public, the fishing industry, or the people who want to use their legal right under the State Constitution to fish in the waters of the state.

More from the Contra Costa Times, Mike Taugher