Delta pumping impacts on orcas...Badlands Journal editorial board
Is Delta Pumping Driving Salmon and Orca Decline?...By DAN BACHER
Increases in freshwater exports out of the California Delta, the operation of Shasta Dam and other inland habitat problems have not only led to the collapse of Central Valley salmon populations, but also threaten the southern resident killer whale population.
These were the conclusions of National Marine Fisheries Service scientists disclosed during a frank discussion of the recently released rewritten draft biological opinion on the impacts of the state and federal water projects during a meeting in Sacramento with representatives of fishing and environmental groups organized by Richard Pool, coordinator of Water for Fish. The NMFS opinion currently concludes "jeopardy" for winter run chinook salmon, spring run chinook salmons, green sturgeon and the southern resident killer whale species.
As a result of litigation by NRDC, Earthjustice and fishing groups, a federal judge ruled that the previous biological opinion violated the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The court ordered the agency directed to issue a new opinion by March of 2009 - and the draft opinion was released in December 2008.
The Opinion also concludes the water projects would likely result in the "adverse modification" or "destruction of critical habitat for the three salmon species." Jeopardy and adverse modifications indicate that the Operating Criteria and Plan (OCAP) process cannot move forward as planned.
Their conclusion that increased water exports play a key role in the decline of salmon, sturgeon and killer whales is in direct contrast to the politically motivated claims by the Bush and Schwarzenegger administations last year that "ocean conditions" caused the collapse.
Staggering losses of salmon and steelhead smolts take place in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, according to the scientists. Indirect losses in the Central Delta were found to be far more significant than losses from direct entrainment at the state and federal pumps on the South Delta. When the cross channel gates on the Sacramento River in the North Delta are open, 65% of the juveniles perish as they are drawn into the Delta interior.
When the gates are closed, more than 50% survive.
At the pumps themselves, only 16.5% of the juveniles survive at the state facility operated by the Department of Water Resources and only 35% survive at the federal pumps operated by the Bureau of Reclamation. Once fish are pulled into Clifton Court Forebay, nearly all of them are lost. The net total loss in the Delta is approximately 60% of the fish entering the system. This number does not include those lost prior to getting to the Delta.
Another alarming conclusion of the biologists is that "endangered steelhead survival out of the San Joaquin is near zero," with flows and predation being major problems. Much of the mortality by the San Joaquin out migrants is caused by the negative flows in Old and Middle rivers. Fish are unable to move to the North Delta because of these southward moving "reverse" flows.
The scenario portrayed by the scientists is very similar to that revealed by Frank Fisher, a now retired DFG fishery biologist, when he documented in 1991-92 the direct correlation between the increase in Delta exports and the decline of Sacramento River salmon. He documented a "Black Hole of Death" that occurred to migrating salmon smolts in the Delta, due to reverse flows, stranding and entrainment of fish in the pumps caused by increased water exports. Considered a "maverick" at the time, Fisher's data and conclusions have been vindicated by the draft biological opinion.
Overall, when the Sacramento River survival of 20% is combined with the Delta survival of 40%, only 8% of the smolts make it to the West Delta!
The biological opinion also documents the major contribution of high water temperatures on the Upper Sacramento to spawning and egg mortality, as well as the staggering loss of juveniles - 80 percent - between Red Bluff and the Delta.
Not only do Delta exports hurt salmon, steelhead and sturgeon populations, but they are driving the southern resident population of killer whales to the edge of extinction. Less than 90 whales are left in a population that depends heavily upon Sacramento River spring, fall and winter run chinook salmon for forage. If the salmon go extinct, so will the killer whales (orcas).
Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, emphasized that the plight of the killer whales posed by the salmon collapse shows how both healthy hatchery and wild populations of salmon must be increased.
"The decline of the whales gives us a strong basis to protect the Central Valley fall chinook run," noted Grader. "The whales don't distinguish between wild and hatchery salmon or between winter, spring and fall run fish. We should provide protection not just to ESA listed species including winter run and spring salmon, but also make sure that there is maximum hatchery fall fish production."
Orcas can grow to 32 feet in length and weigh as much as 18,000 pounds, according to NMFS. The southern resident killer whales are the significant population in the Northwest Region of the U.S. These whales are the "resident" type, spending specific periods each year in the San Juan Islands and Puget Sound, but also range along the California coast down to Monterey. The southern residents feed mostly on salmon.
Scientists who participated in the meeting include Rod McInnis, the Regional Director of NMFS, Maria Rea, the Sacramento Area Office Supervisor of NMFS, Russ Strach, the Assistant Director of Protected Species for NMFS, Churchill Grimes, the Director of Fisheries Ecology of NMFS, Bruce McFarlane, Research Scientist for NMFS, Bruce Oppenheim, Biologist for the Upper Sacramento NMFS office, Jeff Stuart, the NMFS Biologist for the Delta, Chris Yates, Long Beach Protected Resources Division of NMFS, John McCamman, Chief Deputy Director of the Calif. Department of Fish and Game, Neil Manji, Chief of Fisheries for the DFG, and Dan Castleberry, Regional Fisheries Program Manager, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The conclusions of the federal scientists are backed up by the data and conclusions included in recently released reports by the Natural Resources Defense Council, Environmental Defense and California Trout. Yes, ocean conditions may be a factor in salmon and steelhead declines, but it is Delta water exports, other water diversions and freshwater habitat problems that have put salmon and steelhead populations on the brink of extinction.
President Obama has pledged to break with the political manipulation of science practiced under the previous administration. The frank and open discussion by NMFS scientists about the causes of salmon, green sturgeon and killer whale declines during the stakeholders meeting was a promising start.
The evidence of the role of Delta water exports and other freshwater factors in the decline of salmon, green sturgeon and killer whales is inescapable now - and it's time for the state and federal governments, in cooperation with environmental groups, commercial fishing organizations, recreational fishing groups and Indian Tribes - to begin the long road to recovery.
We must stop the attempt by the Department of Water Resources and Bureau of Reclamation to suspend Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections for Delta smelt. We must also defeat legislation by Congressman George Radanovich (R-Mariposa), H.R. 856, to temporarily suspend the ESA as it applies to the California pumping facilities during times of "drought" emergencies declared by the Governor. And we must stop the campaign by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Senator Dianne Feinstein and the Nature Conservancy to build a peripheral canal and more dams!
Here is the complete report on the NMFS meeting from Richard Pool, coordinator of Water for Fish: http://www.calsport.org/2-13-09b.htm#
For more information about what you can do to save Central valley salmon, southern resident killer whales and the Delta, go to www.calsport.org, www.water4fish.org and www.restorethedelta.org.
Dan Bacher can be reached at: Danielbacher@fishsniffer.com
Days of dryness at area reservoirs...Dana M. Nichols
SAN ANDREAS - Kathy Zancanella, the manager at the Calaveras County Airport, has been flying these hills in her small airplane since 1968.
She's seen seasons spin from green to brown, the gradual fading of the black zones left by wildfires, old barns falling and homes arising. She knows the mood of the land, the level of the rivers and the data gathered by sensors at the airport.
The recent rains haven't been enough to change her opinion of what she's seeing from the windows of her 1946 Taylorcraft.
"It looks pretty dry," Zancanella said.
Zancanella recently took an aerial tour of major Mother Lode reservoirs that provide water to farms and cities in our region.
Pardee Reservoir, on the Mokelumne River, appeared to be in the best shape. But Zancanella said because of how it's managed, she's rarely seen it drawn down much over the years.
In contrast, the much larger Camanche Reservoir just downstream is showing miles of shoreline.
And New Hogan Reservoir, the main surface water source for Stockton, looks the worst, with part of the original, smaller Hogan Dam emerging from the water because of the low level.
New Melones, the largest reservoir in the region, has steeper sides and a dramatic bathtub ring even though it hasn't yet sunk to as small a percentage of its capacity as Hogan.
Justice Dept. Defends Bush Rule on Guns
But Interior Is Reviewing Measure, Which Allows Concealed Firearms in Parks...Juliet Eilperin
The Obama administration is legally defending a last-minute rule enacted by President George W. Bush that allows concealed firearms in national parks, even as it is internally reviewing whether the measure meets environmental muster.
In a response Friday to a lawsuit by gun-control and environmental groups, the Justice Department sought to block a preliminary injunction of the controversial rule. The regulation, which took effect Jan. 9, allows visitors to bring concealed, loaded guns into national parks and wildlife refuges; for more than two decades they were allowed in such areas only if they were unloaded or stored and dismantled.
The three groups seeking to overturn the rule -- the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, the National Parks Conservation Association and the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees -- have argued that the Bush administration violated several laws in issuing the rule, such as failing to conduct an adequate environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act. They also argue that the new policy could deter some visitors, such as school groups, from visiting national landmarks.
In its reply, the Justice Department wrote that the new rule "does not alter the environmental status quo, and will not have any significant impacts on public health and safety."
But Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has asked for an internal assessment of whether the measure has any environmental impacts the government needs to take into account, Interior spokesman Matt Lee-Ashley said yesterday.
"Secretary Salazar believes the Department should put forward its legal arguments in defense of the rulemaking procedure, and allow the courts to reach a conclusion," Lee-Ashley wrote in an e-mail. "In addition, in order to ensure that the actions of the government are based upon the best information, Secretary Salazar has directed the National Park Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service, under the auspices of the Office of Assistant Secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks, to undertake a 90-day review of any environmental considerations associated with implementation of these rules and to provide him a report on the results of that review."
Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign, said in an interview that he did not understand why the new administration was defending a rule that embodied "bad policy and bad procedure."
"It is hard to tell who is calling the shots on this at this point," Helmke said. "You're raising the level of risk in the parks, and the chance that people will use the parks less than they have in the past."
Gun rights groups had lobbied hard for the rule change under Bush. When the administration issued the regulation in December, the National Rifle Association's chief lobbyist, Chris W. Cox, said the shift in policy "brings clarity and uniformity for law-abiding gun owners visiting our national parks. We are pleased that the Interior Department recognizes the right of law-abiding citizens to protect themselves and their families while enjoying America's national parks and wildlife refuges."
Bush's assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks, Lyle Laverty, pushed for the policy change, according to documents disclosed as part of the ongoing case in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
In an Aug. 22 letter to the directors of the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service, he wrote, "This proposed rule is one of my top priorities."
But Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dale Hall and National Park Service Director Mary A. Bomar, both Bush appointees, informed Congress shortly before the rule was finalized that they opposed allowing concealed weapons in refuges and parks. "After careful review of our records and actions, we believe that the existing regulations provide necessary and consistent enforcement parameters throughout the National Park System," Hall and Bomar wrote House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Nick J. Rahall II (D-W.Va.) in a Nov. 9 letter.
The national park system has a relatively low rate for crimes or for attacks by wild animals. In a July 31 letter that Bomar wrote to a Reno resident inquiring about the new rule -- which was unearthed during the proceedings -- she stated that in 2006 there were more than 270 million visits to the national park system and 384 violent crimes. In the course of more than 1.3 billion visits to the system since 2002, she added, there have been two reported fatalities and 16 serious injuries caused by "encounters with non-domestic animals."
New York Times
The Unintended Consequences of Changing Nature’s Balance...ELIZABETH SVOBODA
With its craggy green cliffs and mist-laden skies, Macquarie Island — halfway between Australia and Antarctica — looks like a nature lover’s Mecca. But the island has recently become a sobering illustration of what can happen when efforts to eliminate an invasive species end up causing unforeseen collateral damage.
In 1985, Australian scientists kicked off an ambitious plan: to kill off non-native cats that had been prowling the island’s slopes since the early 19th century. The program began out of apparent necessity — the cats were preying on native burrowing birds. Twenty-four years later, a team of scientists from the Australian Antarctic Division and the University of Tasmania reports that the cat removal unexpectedly wreaked havoc on the island ecosystem.
With the cats gone, the island’s rabbits (also non-native) began to breed out of control, ravaging native plants and sending ripple effects throughout the ecosystem. The findings were published in the Journal of Applied Ecology online in January.
“Our findings show that it’s important for scientists to study the whole ecosystem before doing eradication programs,” said Arko Lucieer, a University of Tasmania remote-sensing expert and a co-author of the paper. “There haven’t been a lot of programs that take the entire system into account. You need to go into scenario mode: ‘If we kill this animal, what other consequences are there going to be?’ ”
Seal hunters introduced rabbits to Macquarie in 1878, compounding the invasive species problem on the 21-mile-long island. By 1968, when authorities introduced the deadly Myxoma virus in an attempt to kill off the rabbits, the population had reached more than 100,000.
The strategy worked; by the 1980s, the rabbit population had fallen to less than 20,000. But that meant that the cats, which had depended on the rabbits as a food source, began eating seabirds instead.
To assess the consequences of the cat-killing initiative, the team of ecologists compared satellite images of the island taken in 2000, the year the last remaining cats were killed, with a set taken in 2007. When vegetation dies off, the sharp drop in chlorophyll content reduces near-infrared reflectance in a way that can be recorded.
“You can clearly see the difference between healthy and dead plants in our images,” Mr. Lucieer said. “The live vegetation shows up as bright red.” The scientists also closely studied ground plots to evaluate their plant species composition.
The later satellite images revealed a completely different landscape. The booming rabbit population had destroyed the lush grassy expanses on coastal hillsides, nibbling them bare. Exotic grasses and herbs began taking over the naked slopes, forming a dense network of leaves and stems that in some places prevented native seabirds from accessing suitable nesting sites.
The Macquarie debacle is not an isolated incident; several other species removal programs have inflicted damage on surrounding ecosystems. In New Zealand, conservationists decided to wipe out three introduced species in one go — rats, possums and stoats — by poisoning the first two.
The rationale was that the poisoning operation would eliminate stoat populations by association because rats were a critical part of the stoats’ diet. But when the plan was begun in the early 1990s, the stoats did not disappear. With the absence of rats, the stoats preyed on native birds and bird eggs.
Similarly, in the western United States, the removal of exotic saltcedar shrubs has threatened an endangered species of native songbird, the Southwestern willow flycatcher.
Saltcedar plants, which have nudged out much of the native vegetation, suck up so much water that they constrict river channels and make soil saltier, but they also provide an important nesting habitat for the flycatcher.
In 2005, Department of Agriculture officials began releasing defoliating leaf beetles to control saltcedar populations. In December 2008, the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity struck back, filing a notice of intent to sue the department for failing to collaborate with the Fish and Wildlife Service to figure out a way to protect the flycatcher.
The scientists who studied Macquarie Island have added their findings to those earlier results and hope ecologists will approach future efforts more holistically, doing broad background work on the potential consequences of exotic species removal long before killing programs are started.
“There have been hundreds of invasive species eradication efforts, and the vast majority have resulted in clear conservation gains,” said Erika Zavaleta, an ecologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz. “But Macquarie Island is a new, clear example of unexpected side effects that can happen.”
To avoid worsening problems in trying to solve them, Ms. Zavaleta said, researchers need to make planning and monitoring their mantra. “Scientists need to ask themselves key questions, like how all the species on the island interact with each other.”
Macquarie Island offers a chance to do just that. A new eradication program being planned targets hundreds of thousands of rats, mice and rabbits. In theory, that should eliminate dire threats to local vegetation and fauna, because the rabbits mow down native grasses and the rats and mice eat seabird chicks. But this time, administrators are prepared to make course corrections if things do not turn out according to plan.
“This study clearly demonstrates that when you’re doing a removal effort, you don’t know exactly what the outcome will be,” said Barry Rice, an invasive species specialist at the Nature Conservancy. “You can’t just go in and make a single surgical strike. Every kind of management you do is going to cause some damage.”
Another Amphibian at Risk: Salamanders...HENRY FOUNTAIN
It isn’t easy being an amphibian these days. Perhaps one-third of amphibian species are thought to be threatened or endangered. Among these are many frog species that have suffered sharp declines in recent years, victims of a fungal disease, chytridiomycosis.
Less attention has been paid to the situation with salamanders, but a report in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that they, too, are a large part of what has been called the global amphibian crisis.
David B. Wake and Sean M. Rovito of the University of California, Berkeley, and colleagues surveyed salamander populations in Guatemala and Mexico and compared the results to past surveys.
The sites included a region in western Guatemala that Dr. Wake and others had surveyed in the 1970s. This time, the researchers found very few specimens of some species, notably Pseudoeurycea brunnata and P. goebeli, which were among the most abundant three decades before. Generally, species at higher elevations showed the greatest declines.
The researchers found no direct evidence that chytridiomycosis was involved, although they said it may have played a role. Deforestation and climate change may also be factors, they said, by reducing moisture at higher elevations.
Why you can't get a loan
Banks say they are lending. But many consumers and small business owners disagree. So where's the disconnect?...David Ellis
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Bankers say they are lending but try telling that to consumers having difficulty getting approved for mortgages, credit cards or auto loans.
In recent weeks, politicians have accused financial institutions of failing to extend credit, despite taking in billions of dollars in taxpayers' funds during the past few months.
But financial executives, including the CEOs of eight banks that testified before Congress last week, have maintained that they are making new loans and that the nation would face an even more severe credit crunch had the government not thrown the industry a lifeline.
Still, it's hard to deny that credit is tighter. One reason, experts said, is that many non-banking entities that provide credit, often referred to as the so-called "shadow-banking system", have withdrawn massive amounts of financing from the broader economy.
Money-market funds and insurance companies, for example, have typically been big buyers of debt from companies looking to raise quick cash, notes Rick Spitler, managing director at the New York City-based consultancy Novantas, which focuses on financial institutions. That's no longer the case, forcing corporations to look to banks for credit.
Have you been turned down for a loan recently? Tell us your story
In addition, large institutional investors such as hedge funds and pension funds have shown little appetite for securities backed by mortgages, credit cards and commercial loans, hampering banks' ability to issue new loans.
"The shadow banking system hasn't recovered enough to pick up all the slack and bank capital isn't big enough to fill in for lack of supply and financing," said Spitler.
Some community banks and credit unions have attempted to fill the void left by some of their larger peers but cannot keep up with all the demand for loans, said Sherrill Shaffer, a professor of banking at the University of Wyoming in Laramie who served as the chief economist for the Federal Reserve Bank of New York during much of the 1980s.
Despite this, many banks are doing what they have always done during tough economic times - pulling back on all types of lending and trying to hold onto capital to help safeguard against further loan losses.
'Welcome to our banking nightmare'
Those excuses have done little to satisfy consumers who have e-mailed CNNMoney.com to share their stories.
George, a Wake Forest, N.C. resident who wrote to CNNMoney.com following last Wednesday's Congressional hearing of leading bank CEOs, complained that Citigroup (C, Fortune 500) recently raised the rate on his credit card from 6% to 15% due to higher funding costs.
Small businesses have also felt the pinch. Chris, a vice president at a Kansas City-based retailer with more than 500 employees, e-mailed to say his business was now struggling to find a lender after Bank of America (BAC, Fortune 500) pulled its credit line.
Another small business owner who operates a homebuilding firm just outside of Savannah, Ga., said his company was denied financing by five different lenders, including regional giant SunTrust (STI, Fortune 500), for a loan to purchase a 1.6-acre piece of property. "Welcome to our banking nightmare," the owner wrote.
Banks contacted for this story, all of whom were recipients of billions in government aid, stated that they were simply trying to manage risk in the current credit climate and that changes experienced by consumers or business owners were merited in some instances.
"All our lending decisions are based on doing what is best for our customers, our company and investors," Wells Fargo (WFC, Fortune 500) said in a statement.
Citigroup, which has received $45 billion in investments from the government, said it was looking to change the rates on credit card account holders that had not been repriced in at least 2 years and added that those customers could opt out and continue using their cards until they expire.
"We are carrying out this repricing in order to continue lending in this environment," Citigroup spokesperson Samuel Wang said in a statement.
Who's creditworthy, who's not
Other experts point out that while banks are tightening their standards, they are mainly doing so on consumers who earn less.
An online survey of more than 1,000 individuals in December conducted by Synergistics Research Corp., an Atlanta-based market research firm that focuses on the financial services industry, revealed that overall, one in six consumers were denied credit in the past three months.
But for households earning less than $50,000 annually, approximately a quarter were denied credit.
So who is an ideal candidate to borrow nowadays?
"Someone who doesn't need any money," said Charles Wendel, who runs Financial Institutions Consulting, a Connecticut-based strategic consulting firm that advises banks.
Credit still remains available for those consumers with a high credit score, a stable job and plenty of equity in their home, he notes. In other words, banks may be trying to minimize the number of loans that may actually default.
"The guys [banks] don't want are maxing out their credit card lines," he said. "[Banks] are lending, but lending more selectively."
Still, many CNNMoney.com readers have told us that they have strong credit histories and are running into problems getting new loans.
If you have recently applied for a loan and have been turned down, go to our Talkback and share your story.
Homebuilders a bit more upbeat
Index shows that builders were slightly more optimistic in February compared to January, but near-record low levels suggest home sales will remain sluggish.
NEW YORK (Reuters) -- U.S. homebuilder sentiment climbed in February but held tightly near all-time lows, suggesting sales of new single-family homes would be meager as long as foreclosures flood the market, the National Association of Home Builders said on Tuesday.
The NAHB/Wells Fargo Housing Market Index eked out a one-point gain to 9 from the record low set in January, the group said in a statement. Economists polled by Reuters had predicted the index would stay at 8, the lowest reading since this measure started in January 1985.
Readings below 50 mean more builders view market conditions as poor than favorable. It was the fourth straight month the builder sentiment gauge clung to single digits, and was less than half of the reading of 20 posted a year ago.
"Homebuilders are especially concerned about the continually rising number of foreclosures and short sales, which are flooding the market with excess inventory and undermining overall home values," NAHB chief economist David Crowe said in a statement.
Concerns about this oversupply worsened the outlook for sales in the next six months, even though home buyer shopping picked up and affordability improved.
Builders are counting on new government stimulus to inject life into the worst U.S. housing downturn since the Great Depression.
New home sales are struggling, but "we are certainly hopeful that the newly passed economic stimulus bill, which includes some favorable elements for first-time homebuyers and small businesses, will have a positive impact that will help get housing and the economy back on track," Joe Robson, NAHB chairman and a builder from Tulsa, Oklahoma, said in the statement.
Two key provisions that should stimulate housing are an $8,000 first-time homebuyer tax credit, and extended 2008 high-cost area limits on loans sold to Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the Federal Housing Administration, the trade group said.
NAHB said its current sales conditions index rose 1 point to 7 and its gauge of prospective buyer traffic increased 3 points to 11 in February. But its measure of sales expectations for the next six months fell two points to 15, a new record low.