SACRAMENTO - As the Delta Smelt has become virtually extinct in the wild and spring-run, winter-run and fall-run Chinook populations on the Sacramento River collapse, the Delta Tribal Environmental Coalition (DTEC) filed an administrative comment with the California State Water Resources Control Board on Friday, Jan. 19.
The DTEC, including the Buena Vista Rancheria of Me-Wuk Indians, Shingle Springs Band of Miwok Indians, Winnemem Wintu Tribe, Little Manila Rising, and Restore the Delta, filed the comment with the Water Board. It responds to the Board’s Draft Staff Report for the Phase II Update of the Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan (Bay-Delta Plan). The Coalition is represented by the Stanford Environmental Law Clinic, according to a press statement from the coalition.
“The coalition urges the State Water Board to expeditiously update water quality standards sufficient to protect Delta tribes and communities. The longer the Board delays, the more Bay-Delta tribes, communities, and ecosystems suffer. DTEC will continue to press the Board to fulfill its obligations to protect the Bay-Delta and its residents,” the coalition stated.
Read the complete DTEC Comment Here
Bay-Delta Plan Update lacks a sense of urgency during ecological crisis
“For more than a decade, the State Water Board has recognized that the Delta is in a state of ecological crisis and has promised to update outdated 1995 water quality standards to ensure healthy and thriving Delta waterways,” DTEC wrote. “Although DTEC applauds the Board for finally taking steps toward an update, the current draft staff report neither proposes meaningful water quality protections nor meaningfully advances efforts toward updating the Bay-Delta Plan with the urgency that the ecological crisis in the Delta demands.”
Among the many concerns with the draft staff report, DTEC’s comments point out that the draft staff report’s environmental analysis “does not comply with the California Environmental Quality Act in multiple respects.”
“The staff report, for instance, fails to clearly identify the Board’s proposal for updating the water quality standards, making it challenging for the public to understand and comment on the project, and defers disclosure and analysis of regulatory text and implementation plans until an unknown future date, making actual changes to the damaging status quo illusory,” DTEC stated.
“In addition, the Board continues to equivocate on designating tribal beneficial uses despite ample documentation that California Native American Tribes, including members of DTEC, have depended on Delta waterways for sustenance, ceremony, culture, and a broad range of essential uses since time immemorial,” the coalition pointed out.
“And the Board continues to advance voluntary agreements with water exporters as a substitute for minimum instream flow requirements despite widespread backlash against the exclusionary processes that created them and the lack of scientific support for their proposal to trade much-needed flows for vaguely defined habitat restoration measures,” DTEC argued.
Through its comments, DTEC asks the Board to “recirculate the staff report’s environmental analysis and, in doing so, engage in CEQA-mandated consultation with California Native American Tribes, create a legally required public trust analysis, adopt Tribal Beneficial Uses on a watershed-wide basis, meaningfully incorporate Traditional Ecological Knowledge into water governance, and adopt a water quality and flow objective to manage the proliferation of harmful algal blooms impacting Delta tribes and communities.”
Consistent with the best available science and Traditional Ecological Knowledge. DTEC also urges the Board to “adopt a clear minimum 65% unimpaired inflow objective accompanied by management strategies to mimic natural flow variability.”
‘A lot of words but no real substance’
Representatives of the DTEC Member Groups spoke out on the significance of their comment.
Gary Mulcahy, Government Liaison, Winnemem Wintu Tribe, said the Bay-Delta Plan update Draft Staff Report “is basically a ‘farce.”
“There are a lot of words but no real substance,” he explained. “Almost 600 pages and not one paragraph about how this plan would be implemented. It is like doing a stand-up comedy act with no punchlines. It does include a lot of exclusionary verbiage and insinuation. We may consider this, or this might be something to consider but no concrete answers. Go back to the drawing board.”
“Our existence is tied to healthy rivers, and for far too long the rivers have been diseased by lack of flow from excessive diversions,” said Malissa Tayaba, Vice-Chair, Shingle Springs Band of Miwok Indians. “The Bay-Delta Plan is an opportunity to value our existence through restoration of the plants and animals that depend on healthy rivers. We need a plan that places tribal water needs on equal footing with other water uses. The State Water Board should not squander the opportunity to begin making amends for centuries of violence and discrimination against California’s native peoples.”
“Without fully planning for, protecting, and enhancing the Delta through achievable water quality, equitable management, and tribal beneficial uses of Delta watershed rivers and the estuary, the Bay-Delta Plan staff report is woefully incomplete — which is particularly troubling after years of delays due to the closed-door voluntary agreement process which left out Buena Vista Rancheria and the other Delta watershed tribes,” noted Ivan Senock, Tribal Historic Preservation Officer, Buena Vista Rancheria of Me-Wuk Indians. “Water flows are tied to the health of Tribes, Delta communities, fisheries, wildlife, and plant life — all parts of the environment that are tied to indigenous cultural practices and the overall health of Tribal people.”
Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, Executive Director, Restore the Delta, commented, “It is so unjust that Delta communities and tribes, who have spent years requesting with urgency a Bay-Delta Plan to restore rivers and the estuary, have had to expend incredible energy, time, and resources to respond to this completely inadequate document. Politics in California water planning protect powerful interests, and senior level leaders continue to ignore science and protection for all communities and tribes by restoring flows for the estuary.”
Delta’s worst-ever ecological crisis spurred by water diversions and exports
The comments were filed at a time when the San Francisco Bay-Delta Estuary is in its worst ecological crisis in history, largely due to water exports and the oversubscription of water in California.
Sacramento River fall-run Chinook salmon salmon populations, along with the Klamath/Trinity salmon runs, have collapsed, resulting in the closure of ocean and river salmon fishing in California last year and probably again this year.
Massive water diversions south of the Delta to agribusiness oligarchs and water brokers and abysmal state and federal water management of reservoirs and Central Valley rivers have also pushed endangered Sacramento River winter-run and spring-run Chinook salmon closer and closer to extinction.
Meanwhile, endangered Delta Smelt, an indicator species that demonstrates the health of the estuary ecosystem, are now virtually extinct in the wild. Zero Delta Smelt were collected in the CDFW’s Fall Midwater Trawl Survey for the sixth year in a row in 2023: www.dailykos.com/…
Once the most abundant species in the entire estuary, the Delta Smelt population has plummeted due to massive water diversions from the Delta, combined with toxics, water pollution and invasive species.
Disparaged as a “little minnow” by agribusiness oligarchs, Big Ag-owned politicians and right wing talking heads like Sean Hannity, the important role this fish plays in the ecosystem can’t be overemphasized.
”Delta Smelt are the thread that ties the Delta together with the river system,” said Caleen Sisk, Chief of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe. “We all should understand how that affects all the water systems in the state. They are the irreplaceable thread that holds the Delta system together with Chinook salmon.”
The 2 to 3 inch fish, found only in the Delta, is an “indicator species” that shows the relative health of the San Francisco Bay/Delta ecosystem. The Delta smelt is listed as “endangered” under both the federal Endangered Species Act and the California Endangered Species Act.
When no Delta Smelt are found in six years of a survey that has been conducted since 1967, the estuary is in a serious ecological crisis
“No Delta Smelt were collected at any stations from September through November,” according to Erin Chappell, Regional Manager, Bay Delta Region-3 to Brooke Jacobs, CDFW Branch Chief, and other CDFW staff on December 21. “The 2023 September- November index (0) is tied with 2016 and 2018-2022 as the lowest index in FMWT history.”
She said the absence of Delta Smelt catch in the FMWT is “consistent among other surveys in the estuary.” For example, the Enhanced Delta Smelt Monitoring (EDSM) survey of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) caught only 5 Delta Smelt among 10 sampling weeks (between 9/4 and 11/10) comprised of 1,360 tows (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2023).
The near-extinction of Delta Smelt in the wild is part of the larger Pelagic Organism Decline (POD) caused by massive water diversions from the Delta by the state and federal water projects, along with toxics, water pollution and invasive species.
Between 1967 and 2020, the state’s Fall Midwater Trawl abundance indices for striped bass, Delta smelt, longfin smelt, American shad, splittail and threadfin shad have declined by 99.7, 100, 99.96, 67.9, 100, and 95%, respectively, according to the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance.
Taken as five-year averages (1967-71 vs. 2016-20), the declines for striped bass, Delta smelt, longfin smelt, American shad, splittail and threadfin shad are 98.1, 99.8, 99.8, 26.2, 99.3 and 94.3 percent, respectively.
Unless the Water Board and the Gavin Newsom Administration change direction, fish extinction and the destruction of a once robust, fish-filled estuary are likely to be their real “environmental legacy.”