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Fishery Agency Slams Feinstein Drought Bill

The Pacific Fishery Management Council says drought legislation introduced by Senator Dianne Feinstein could harm California salmon runs that support a $1.4 billion fishing industry and 23,000 jobs.

Written by Matt Weiser Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
Emma Cox, an employee with Cal Marsh and Farm Ventures, carries a bucket of young salmon to be released into a holding pen in a flooded rice field near Woodland, Calif. Feb. 20, 2013. Fisheries groups worry that legislation proposed by Senator Dianne Feinstein to address California's drought will weaken protections to help already struggling salmon runs.Rich Pedroncelli, AP

The federal agency that manages fishing harvests along the Pacific Coast has strongly criticized drought legislation proposed by California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, saying it will cause “irreparable harm” to salmon and the coastal communities that depend on fishing.

The Pacific Fishery Management Council, based in Portland, Ore., prepared a letter on May 11 analyzing Feinstein’s bill, in response to a request from Rep. Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael) and Rep. Mike Thompson (D-St. Helena), both of whom represent fishing communities.

The letter notes that, among other things, the Feinstein legislation, SB 2533, would guarantee certain water supplies for agricultural irrigation and loosen environmental laws to benefit water extraction from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. But it does almost nothing to help the endangered Central Valley Chinook salmon, which breed in the Sacramento River watershed and have experienced severe population declines during the ongoing California drought.

Fall-run Chinook supports a fishing industry worth $1.4 billion annually, along with an estimated 23,000 jobs in three states.

“The bill does not mandate or even authorize stronger water management protections for salmon,” writes Charles Tracy, the council’s acting executive director. The legislation would “maximize the water supply and exports from the San Francisco Bay-Delta Estuary in order to increase water available for agriculture … Essentially, ‘maximizing supply’ means reducing the water available to salmon.”

The letter comes just a few weeks after the council adopted rules for the 2016 ocean salmon fishing season. Fishing opportunities will be sharply reduced compared to the last few years, because salmon numbers have dropped considerably due to water shortages.

The council is a 19-member regulatory body appointed to set sustainable fishing seasons for ocean-going species in California, Oregon and Washington. Its members include representatives of the fishing industry as well as wildlife management experts from state and federal government agencies, who have the best available information about fishery health and threats to the species.

“Their voice is powerful, and I expect it will be heard by at least some in Congress who are interested in the welfare of coastal communities and fishing families,” said John McManus, executive director of the Golden Gate Salmon Association.

Feinstein’s bill is scheduled for a hearing Tuesday before the Water and Power Subcommittee of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. It will be the first – and possibly the only – hearing for the bill.

If approved in the Senate, Feinstein’s bill will likely be merged in a conference committee with a bill by Rep. David Valadao (R-Hanford). That bill, HR 2898, which has already passed the House, is similar to Feinstein’s in many respects, but goes further in weakening environmental laws and guaranteeing water deliveries for agriculture.

Feinstein could not be reached for comment. But Rep. John Garamendi (D-Walnut Grove) defended Feinstein’s bill.

Garamendi, who lives in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, had announced earlier this year that he supports the Feinstein bill, a move that puzzled many of his constituents since the bill would alter a number of federal policies intended to protect the estuary.

He said a key goal of the legislation is to require “real-time monitoring” of fish locations in the estuary to guide water export decisions. This, he said, would improve water delivery while also protecting fish.

“The question is, will it provide for better operational flexibility in a drought circumstance?” Garamendi said. “The answer is absolutely yes, both for the fish as well as for the consumptive water users. It creates greater certainty that the species will be protected whatever water is to be exported.”

Both the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries service already do real-time monitoring for delta smelt and various salmon and steelhead species. They use trawl nets and rotary screw traps at strategic locations throughout the fish migration seasons to track the location and abundance of the species.

A biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration prepares to attach a tiny transmitter to a juvenile salmon raised in a flooded rice field that mimics the natural marshlands that once were plentiful in California, on April 3, 2013, near Woodland, Calif. Real-time monitoring of fish is an important component of decision making about water exports for the Bay Delta. (Tracie Cone, AP)

A biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration prepares to attach a tiny transmitter to a juvenile salmon raised in a flooded rice field that mimics the natural marshlands that once were plentiful in California, on April 3, 2013, near Woodland, Calif. Real-time monitoring of fish is an important component of decision making about water exports for the Bay Delta. (Tracie Cone, AP)

Asked if the bill would increase water exports from the delta, Garamendi said it could.

“It would allow for appropriate levels of pumping consistent with the protection of the species. That could result in more [exports],” he said.

Almost three months ago, Garamendi announced he was going to introduce his own drought bill in the House as a companion to the Feinstein bill, no doubt intended as a moderate alternative to Valadao’s bill. But he has not done so yet. Asked why, he indicated it’s because he is working closely with Feinstein.

“We are delaying the introduction so as to assist Sen. Feinstein’s passage of her bill,” Garamendi said on Friday. “It is not clear when that moment will arise. It may be next week.”

(Editor’s note: Garamendi introduced his legislation, HR 5247, on Monday evening, and it is reportedly identical to the Feinstein bill.)

Feinstein’s bill focuses largely on boosting water delivery to farmers in the San Joaquin Valley. But it also has a provision to do the same for Sacramento Valley farmers who buy water under contract from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which is delivered primarily from Shasta Reservoir – the same source from which San Joaquin Valley farmers get their water.

A section of the bill guarantees Sacramento Valley farmers, most of them located on the west side of the valley, a certain percentage of their water contracts depending on water-year type. Ironically, this would essentially eliminate the process the reclamation bureau uses today, which relies on a wide variety of real-time monitoring factors to allocate water.

John Brennan, a rice farmer in the Colusa area, said the language in the bill seems intended to curry favor with Sacramento Valley farmers who might otherwise object to the legislation. Because the bill guarantees more water to the San Joaquin Valley, that could leave less for the Sacramento Valley without a corresponding guarantee.

In any case, there is no obvious need for that guarantee, Brennan said.

“At the end of last year, there was more water available to the west side Sacramento Valley than they could take,” said Brennan, also a board member of the Northern California Water Association, which represents agricultural water users in the Sacramento Valley. “Right now, there’s enough water that can be moved around to those junior contractors with basically a one-page contract. But you could not sell any of that water to the west-side people because there’s no demand.”

Asked how drought legislation could be helpful, Brennan said federal law could mandate more projects to improve salmon habitat. The problem for salmon is not just inadequate water flows, but also disappearing habitat and decreasing food sources due to a century of land development.

Brennan’s company, Cal Marsh and Farm, is a key partner in the Nigiri Project, which experimentally flooded a rice field to help salmon populations. It confirmed that opening flooded rice fields to migrating juvenile salmon can boost their survival by providing bountiful new food sources for fish, in the form of aquatic insects that breed in the shallow water.

Brennan said incentives are needed to create such projects on a much larger scale. Other viable salmon projects have been recognized as important for years, but have never gotten past the planning stages. These include building a modern fish ladder in the Yolo Bypass, constructing a giant flood-control channel near Sacramento, and re-engineering agricultural drainage channels where salmon often become stranded.

Such projects could boost salmon populations and thereby reduce stress on the species when water supplies are limited. This, Brennan argued, could potentially free up some of that water for other purposes.

The Feinstein legislation does nothing about these projects.

“We’ve identified projects up and down the Sacramento River system to work on fish issues, and we need to focus on these projects,” Brennan said. “It’s all coming down to how serious are we about endangered species?”

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