“GOOD RIDDANCE! ‘PEOPLE OVER FISH’” prominent Valley farmer Mark Borba said in a Facebook post Monday. -- Kastler, Sabanow, Sacramento Bee, Jan. 2, 2018
Delta fish is going, going ...
By Alex Breitler
Even Northern California’s wettest winter wasn’t enough to help the poor Delta smelt avoid dropping to another record low in 2017.
While the fingerlong fish might not seem of great consequence to most people, its health is a sign of the well-being of the Delta as a whole.
And the smelt are not well. Crews spent four months this fall using large nets to sample more than 100 sites from San Francisco Bay to the Delta. They caught a grand total of two fish.
That’s the worst showing in a survey that dates back to 1967. It’s also a 99.9 percent decline from the smelt’s highest estimated population level, measured in 1970.
“The population is so low that they can’t find each other to mate. We’re lucky to have any smelt,” said Tom Cannon, a fish ecologist and consultant for the Stockton-based environmental group California Sportfishing Protection Alliance.
The fish’s continued decline toward extinction might not be surprising if California was still stuck in a severe drought. But the Delta flooded last winter, and experts had been hoping the smelt might see at least a modest rebound as a result.
That’s what happened in 2011, another wet year, when the smelt population increased tenfold.
Not this time. Not only was there no rebound, but the number of fish found in the surveys actually declined slightly. It may be that there are so few smelt left that even four months of extensive surveying is not enough to detect increases or decreases in their numbers, said Peter Moyle, a University of California, Davis professor and expert on California’s native fishes.
A look at other species
Not all of the news is bad for Delta fish after a very wet 2017.
While a population index for the infamous Delta smelt declined from 8 to 2,the index for the striped bass — a valued sport fish — climbed from 124 to 470, the highest since 2001 (though still far lower than historic levels).
Longfin smelt, a cousin of the Delta smelt, rebounded nicely from 7 last year to 141 this year.
And American shad soared from 313 last year to 3,086 this year.
The index is not a measurement of the actual number of fish, but is calculated using a formula based on the number of fish found in surveys from September through December.
It’s also possible that last winter’s floods swept the smelt farther away from each other, making it even harder for the fish to find each other and breed, he said. Because they live for just one year, it’s critical that the species is able to reproduce annually.
“We really just don’t know what is going on with the smelt at this stage,” Moyle wrote in an email to The Record.
State and federal officials on Thursday said that some smelt likely did spawn successfully last spring, but that their offspring encountered problems later in the year, including an unusually hot summer that warmed water temperatures to lethal levels. This dry fall likely hasn’t helped, either.
“Things were going pretty well until the summer. Then the count dropped off,” said Carl Wilcox, a policy adviser with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.
But environmentalists believe that water management actions have had a large role in the overall demise of the smelt, which could become the first Delta species in 60 years to go extinct.
Even in years with normal precipitation, so much water is taken upstream of the Delta or pumped directly to southland farms and cities that the estuary’s fish and wildlife face droughtlike conditions.
And while those water exports have sometimes been curtailed to protect the fish under the Endangered Species Act, those curtailments have not always been as aggressive as biologists recommended.
Smelt numbers really cratered during the most recent drought, when already-low flows were made even lower by state officials who decided to loosen water quality standards in the Delta so that more water could be stored in reservoirs. Even after the drought, earlier this fall, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Agency agreed to temporarily relax another water quality rule to allow for more exports.
Agency spokesman Shane Hunt said Thursday that most recent “minor modification” likely had no effect on the smelt, which face a number of threats in addition to water withdrawals, such as pollution from farms and cities, and a loss of historic habitat.
But Doug Obegi, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco, said the water policies of state and federal agencies over a number of years have caused cumulative harm to the species. And he’s not surprised at the latest dismal numbers.
“It’s the old death by a thousand cuts,” he said. “Even in years like this, when we should be providing better conditions for fish, the agencies still cut corners.”
As fish disappear, Trump administration seeks to pump more California water south
Dale Kasler And Ryan Sabalow
The Trump administration, teeing up a fight with California regulators, is trying to pump more water through the fragile Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to the southern half of the state despite fresh evidence of the estuary’s shrinking fish population.
A proposal by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to “maximize water deliveries” represents the administration’s first concrete effort to make good on a promise Donald Trump made while campaigning for the presidency in Fresno, where he vowed to deliver more water to San Joaquin Valley farmers and derided protections for endangered fish species.
Trump’s water plan is likely to meet stiff resistance from California officials, who relish fighting the president and spent much of 2017 battling his administration over air pollution, climate change, immigration and a slew of other issues. Experts said the state’s Endangered Species Act and other laws should provide California with ample ammunition to complicate Trump’s efforts to move more water through the Delta.
Reclamation’s proposal, outlined in a regulatory notice last Friday, would bring long-lasting changes to the Central Valley Project, the water network built during Franklin Roosevelt’s administration. The notice said various state and federal regulations have “significantly reduced the water available for delivery south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.” As a result, the bureau said it will “evaluate alternatives that maximize water deliveries.”
Agricultural districts in the San Joaquin Valley, which comprise the bulk of the Central Valley Project’s customers, welcomed the proposal as a long overdue counterweight to years of stifling restrictions on water pumping.
“In the end, what’s being discussed is ensuring that people and farmers and farmworkers have water,” said deputy general manager Johnny Amaral of the influential Westlands Water District in Fresno and Kings counties. “Pretty simple concept. After all, that’s why the CVP was built, to do that very thing.”
Fresno City Councilman Steve Brandau, who has rented billboards in his city urging Trump to scale back fish protections, said he’s optimistic the president is going to bring more water to the Valley.
“I think the president is hearing from people from the Central Valley,” said Brandau, who grew up in a farm town near Fresno. His billboards featured a picture of Trump and the message, “Mr. President, we need: 1. Water 2. Dams 3. Fish.” The word “fish” is crossed out in red.
Change won’t occur overnight. Reclamation spokeswoman Erin Curtis said the bureau will spend the next year conducting environmental reviews and will “start a dialogue with all of the stakeholders,” including state and federal environmental agencies.
Environmentalists quickly objected to the bureau’s plan, saying it violates a federal law that requires the agency to give equal weight to fish and wildlife when it operates the Central Valley Project. “The science says we need to reduce diversions (from the Delta) and increase protections,” said attorney Doug Obegi of the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco. “The Trump administration is saying damn the fish and damn the rivers and let’s get more water to Westlands.”
The Trump administration’s plan comes at a crucial moment for the Delta, the nexus of California’s complicated north-to-south water delivery system.
Gov. Jerry Brown’s $17 billion plan to build twin tunnels beneath the Delta is in jeopardy because of funding problems. Brown says the tunnels, by rerouting how water flows through the estuary, would help solve never-ending conflicts between fish and water supplies. As it stands now, the pumps are often restricted in order to protect Delta smelt and other endangered fish species, allowing more water to flow out to the ocean.
Fish populations are dwindling in spite of those restrictions, and there are fresh signs that the problems are getting worse. Last week the California Department of Fish and Wildlife disclosed that its regular fall survey of the Delta’s waters turned up a total of two smelt, the lowest in the survey’s 50-year history. The survey is further evidence that the smelt, which once numbered in the millions, are nearing extinction.
Many valley farmers have long argued that the government’s operations in the Delta favor fish over agriculture, and some have little sympathy for the plight of the smelt. Trump, while campaigning in Fresno in 2016, belittled efforts to “protect a certain kind of 3-inch fish,” and some farmers are celebrating the proposal to increase pumping.
“GOOD RIDDANCE! ‘PEOPLE OVER FISH’” prominent Valley farmer Mark Borba said in a Facebook post Monday.
The smelt survey results were noteworthy because they followed the wettest winter in Northern California history, which should have yielded higher smelt numbers. The last time Northern California had a wet winter, in 2011, the fall survey found 343 smelt, up from 29 the year before. Now California is facing the prospect of a dry winter, which could create more environmental stress on the Delta.
Environmentalists say revving up the Delta pumps could do more harm to the estuary, and its fish.
“I don’t know that they’re going to find a lot of extra water without doing violence,” said Jay Lund, director of UC Davis’ Center for Watershed Sciences.
Lund and UC Davis water law expert Richard Frank said the State Water Resources Control Board, which oversees water rights in the Delta, has the authority to make sure all pumping operations – including those conducted by the U.S. government – comply with the state’s environmental protection laws.
The water board, controlled by Gov. Jerry Brown’s appointees, is already holding hearings on proposals that would significantly reduce pumping in order to improve the Delta’s water quality – a move that would fly in the face of Trump’s efforts.
“The state has … a great deal of ability to protect what it sees as the environmental interests,” Lund said.
Officials with the state water board didn’t return messages seeking comment.
Obegi said the state has other powers as well. The federal Central Valley Project Improvement Act, signed into law by the first President George Bush, directs Reclamation to obey California’s environmental laws, he said.
The Trump administration’s pumping proposal is a response to an effort begun in August 2016 by the National Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversee protections for Delta fish, to re-examine decade-old rules that govern pumping operations. When that effort was begun, the Obama administration was still in office and it was widely assumed that the two agencies would strengthen protections for the fish, possibly at the expense of water deliveries.
The Trump proposal also is a response to a controversial law signed by President Barack Obama in late 2016, called the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act. The law directs pump operators to “maximize water supplies for the Central Valley Project and the State Water Project.”
The law is short on details. It also creates additional protections for the Delta’s ecosystem, according to Obegi.
Those protections are contained in the intricacies of how the state and federal governments work in tandem to run water through the Delta. If the state believes the federal government is violating California Endangered Species Act protections by increasing pumping, it’s obliged to reduce its own State Water Project pumping activities, according to Obegi. At the same time, the law signed by Obama in 2016 says the federal government can’t do anything that would force the State Water Project to reduce its water deliveries.
The upshot, Obegi said, is the state could use the Obama law to try to prevent the Trump administration from ramping up pumping activities. But he said there’s so much wiggle room in all of the relevant laws that it isn’t clear whether California would succeed in thwarting Trump’s plan.
“It’s got the potential to be a pretty chaotic year,” Obegi said.
Water at heart of heated email exchanges between Borba, others
by John Ellis
West-side grower Mark Borba was forced to step down as Community Medical Centers’ board chair after he sent an email with a racially insensitive comment about President Barack Obama.
But Borba’s statement was just one small part of a long-running series of email exchanges on March 1 that exposed a seamier side of politics not often seen by the general public.
The emails went on for hours and primarily involved Borba, Johnny Amaral, who is chief of staff for Rep. Devin Nunes, a Tulare Republican, and Westlands Water District General Manager Tom Birmingham.
Several others, including Westlands board members and staffers for Sen. Dianne Feinstein, were copied in some of the emails.
The f-word was often used, as were other expletives.
It all started with Borba thanking Rep. Jim Costa, a Fresno Democrat, for writing a letter to U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Michael Connor.
In the letter, Costa urged the Bureau to increase water pumping from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, which is restricted because of protections in place to protect the delta smelt.
Borba then added: “This is total insanity. Where the Hell is Feinstein & the Administration?” He then goes on to detail the economic losses to the Valley’s west side before concluding: “The Senator’s silence is deafening.”
One of those copied on the email was Birmingham, who responded with a defense of Feinstein. He wrote to Borba that “Senator Feinstein and her staff have been pushing Interior and Reclamation behind the scenes.”
It is at that point that Borba explodes with multiple expletives and calls Obama “Blackie.” He wrote: “I’m tired of these (expletive) politicians waltzing thru here… telling us how tough things are… picking our pockets for campaign $$$$… and they returning to DC and doing nothing! Put their (expletive) careers on the line… or step down.”
Birmingham then lashed out in response, telling Borba to “give me a (expletive) break.” He then brings the Valley’s Republican congressional delegation — Nunes, Bakersfield’s Kevin McCarthy, Hanford’s David Valadao and Turlock’s Jeff Denham — into the increasingly heated email conversation.
“The question you should be asking,” Birmingham wrote to Borba, “is where in the (expletive) were Denham, Nunes, Valadao and McCarthy, all of whom were asked to sign the (Costa) letter.”
Birmingham tells Borba that all of Costa’s Valley Republican congressional colleagues refused to sign the letter.
Borba then responds with an email to Nunes. He copied both Amaral and Birmingham. In the email, Borba tells Nunes that “standing on the sidelines… is not helpful. We’re dying out here… and you’re playing politics? What’s your excuse? If we ran our businesses like you guys run Congress… we’d be broke. Come to think of it… we’re getting there… with your ‘help.’”
Amaral responds, telling Borba he is “pathetic.”
“How quickly (Westlands) forgets what we did… and how they allowed (Feinstein) to do nothing at all. Its no wonder you guys continue to lose. Sending (expletive) letters meant to cover someones (expletive) does nothing to advance the effort,” Amaral wrote.
Borba then, in essence, asks both Amaral and Nunes — what have you done for west-side agriculture lately? Amaral replies that Nunes and his fellow Republicans did do something for the west side last year, “and you guys completely (expletive) it up and threw it away.”
At one point, Amaral writes “blah blah blah. The moment you (expletive) get your lord and savior difi (Feinstein) to do something… ANYTHING at all, the House will move a bill again.”
In an interview Tuesday, Amaral explained this part of his exchange with Borba. He said it was about H.R. 1837, legislation that would have would restored about 1.4 million acre-feet of water annually to Valley farmers who have lost water to environmental causes.
Amaral said considerable work went into the bill, which eventually passed the Republican-controlled House with the support of 10 Democrats, including Costa. But then the Senate — or Feinstein — did nothing.
“It was a gift teed up do something relevant on water and it was squandered,” Amaral said in the interview.
Instead, Amaral said, west-side ranchers and growers held a fundraiser for Feinstein.
As the emails between Amaral and Borba grow uglier and more personal, Amaral adds a new element, telling Borba he didn’t appreciate him “calling Devin a (expletive) to (Republican businessman) Tal Cloud.”
Borba responds: “Sometimes the truth hurts.”
During the exchanges, Nunes, Cloud and Fresno County Lincoln Club Chairman Michael Der Manouel Jr. weigh in. Both Nunes and Der Manouel write to Borba saying that letters are useless — Der Manouel saying they “don’t mean (expletive).”
Cloud’s contribution: “I can’t wait to hear the other side of the story on this. Most likely (Nunes) is tired of you everyone (sic) kissing Feinstein’s (expletive) when she never comes through on issues that matter.”
Amaral said Tuesday he regretted his use of profanity — but not the content of the emails.
“I will defend to my last dying breath the work Devin has done to improve the water situation in California and in the Valley,” he said. “I am proud of the work we’ve done.”
Nunes pointed out in an interview that several Westlands growers support and have donated to Democrats such as Feinstein and Gov. Jerry Brown. He said those Democrats “laugh at these guys over drinks, and they’re playing them for money.”
“This is no different than what we’ve been telling these guys,” Nunes added. “They have a flawed strategy that is doomed to failure.”
Borba and Birmingham both declined to comment on the emails. Feinstein also declined to comment.
Thirsty Westlands faces escalating woes