Reality Check: The Decline of California’s Native Fish
A headline Monday in the Washington Post declared: “The big fish story everyone is missing in the Western drought.”
Everyone in Washington, perhaps.
In reality, the decline of numerous native fish species – Delta smelt, longfin smelt, Chinook salmon, Sacramento splittail and others – has been covered by the California media for, oh, at least 15 years. The role of the state’s massive water diversion projects has been clearly detailed in this effort. In short, California’s insatiable growth and thirst for freshwater has left too little behind for native fish, which are now faced with inadequate habitats, excessive temperatures and declining water quality.
Water demand alone isn’t to blame. Invasive species have contributed by eating native fish and crowding them out of their habitat. Pollution has hampered fish health and reproductive success. Habitat loss has been caused not just by dam construction, but by land development and flood control projects.
California journalists have been writing about these problems for a long time. The fish species have continued to decline anyway. The Post’s revelation was triggered in part by yet another account of the tragedy by Bettina Boxall of the Los Angeles Times, who has covered it for years herself. This time, she gives us a peek into the trenches, where biologists and hatchery managers are engaged in a Sisyphean effort to save the few fish that remain.
“We’re going to be losing most of our salmon and steelhead if things continue,” Peter Moyle, a U.C. Davis professor emeritus of fish biology, tells Boxall. “It would be a major extinction event.”
Moyle has been telling journalists stuff like that for nigh on two decades. Nothing has happened because government moves too slowly, and is overly influenced by political heavyweights who need more water to play their part in the economy.
The drought has simply turned up the heat in the extinction bath in which California’s native fish have been swimming for at least a generation. A few media outlets seem excited to think they’ve discovered the story. It’s unlikely to reverse the fundamental problems.
Water District to Challenge Penalty
The Byron-Bethany Irrigation District, facing the first fine levied by the state for an illegal diversion during the drought, has requested a hearing to contest the penalty.
The district was slapped with a $1.5 million penalty earlier this year by the State Water Resources Control Board for allegedly ignoring an order to halt its water diversions from the San Joaquin River. That order came in response to the drought, part of a broad series of water diversion curtailment orders that affected many other water users as well.
The hearing will be held on October 28 and may take several days. The district also filed a lawsuit against the board, which is pending.
The case is somewhat unique in that Byron-Bethany’s pattern of diversions is well documented because it draws water from a canal that feeds the State Water Project. Flows in that canal are monitored closely, and ample records are available to illustrate the district’s diversions.
27 Years Late, Nestle Bottling Permit to be Reviewed
The U.S. Forest Service plans to update a Nestle permit to bottle water from Arrowhead Springs in the San Bernardino National Forest – 27 years after the permit expired.
The action comes after dogged investigation by reporter Ian James at the Desert Sun newspaper in Palm Springs. He revealed that the Forest Service repeatedly failed to update the permit, an important process to ensure Nestle’s water extractions are not harming the environment and that the public is paid fairly for that water.
Nestle Waters North America, a subsidiary of Switzerland-based Nestle SA, has paid the federal government only $524 a year to take nearly 25 million gallons of water annually from Arrowhead Springs. That’s an average of about 68,000 gallons a day.
The water is drawn from about a dozen wells on the mountainside and flows through separate pipes before coming together in the single pipeline that runs along Strawberry Creek. There is concern, especially during the ongoing drought, that Nestle’s water extractions may be harming the ecology of the creek.
“You can’t take that much water in a terrible drought and not affect the stream,” Steve Loe, a retired Forest Service biologist, told the newspaper.
Photo courtesy by Dan Cox, US Fish and Wildlife Service