Federal biologists are really stirring things up in Northern California. They have determined that the irrigation system in the vast Central Valley farm region jeopardizes the future of several species of fish as well as Puget Sound’s killer whales.
The killer whale angle is worth some discussion — but first the larger picture.
“What is at stake here is not just the survival of species but the health of entire ecosystems and the economies that depend on them,” Rod Mcinnis, southwest regional director for NOAA’s Fisheries Service said in a news release. “We are ready to work with our federal and state partners, farmers and residents to find solutions that benefit the economy, environment and Central Valley families.”
Changing the water system to meet the requirements of threatened and endangered species could reduce water supplies by 5 to 7 percent, significantly affecting farm production and drinking water supplies. Several proposed projects — valued at hundreds of millions of dollars — could help balance that out. To see the technical reports, go to NOAA’s Web site on the issue.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger objected to the findings in a written statement:
“This federal biological opinion puts fish above the needs of millions of Californians and the health and security of the world’s eighth largest economy. The piling on of one federal court decision after another in a species-by-species approach is killing our economy and undermining the integrity of the Endangered Species Act. I will be asking for a meeting with Secretary Salazar and Secretary Locke to discuss our concerns with these biological opinions, and my Administration will be pursuing every possible avenue to reconcile the harmful effects of these decisions.”
Court action is almost certain.
It’s interesting to see the federal biologists address the plight of the Southern Resident killer whales with respect to water use in California. These orcas frequent Puget Sound, but they are spending a great deal of their time along the West Coast down to Monterey Bay. The bottom line in the biological opinion is that salmon availability along the coast could be a key factor in whether the population is able to avoid extinction.
Environmental groups were quick to argue that if water operations in Northern California can raise the risk of extinction to intolerable levels, then surely the dams on the Columbia River ought to be a concern.
“The recent National Marine Fisheries Service conclusion linking destruction of salmon habitat to harm to killer whales is a breath of fresh air,” said Kathy Fletcher, executive director for People for Puget Sound in a statement. “Our killer whales are at critically low numbers, and NMFS has recognized that what we do to salmon in freshwater impacts our orcas in the ocean. But it doesn’t make sense to protect salmon for whales to eat in California while at the same time ignoring the effect of dams on fish in the whales’ backyard.”
The issue of what to do about the dams remains before a federal judge. The Obama administration is considering whether to continue with the Bush approach to leave the dams in place or revisit the issue.
“The fiction that the dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers have no effect on the food supply for orcas is one of many failings in the Columbia and Snake River biological opinion,” said Steve Mashuda of Earthjustice, which represents the groups in the case. “Our killer whales shouldn’t have to travel all the way to Monterey Bay to find a decent meal.”
To understand why the federal biologists consider water activities in California critical to the survival of the Southern Resident killer whales, I’ve pulled some comments from the Biological Opinion and Conference Opinion on the Long-Term Operations of the Central Valley Project and State Water Project (PDF 12.7mb):
The Southern Residents were formerly thought to range southward along the coast to about Grays Harbor (Bigg et al. 1990) or the mouth of the Columbia River (Ford et al. 2000). However, recent sightings of members of K and L pods in Oregon (in 1999 and 2000) and California (in 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006 and 2008) have considerably extended the southern limit of their known range (NMFS 2008b)….
No single threat has been directly linked to or identified as the cause of the recent decline of the Southern Residents, although the three primary threats are identified as prey availability, environmental contaminants, and vessel effects and sound (Krahn et al. 2002). Researchers are unsure about which threats are most significant…
The ongoing research provides insight into the river of origin of Chinook salmon consumed by the Southern Residents. Genetic analysis of fecal and prey samples from the research indicates that Southern Residents consume Fraser River origin Chinook salmon, as well as salmon from Puget Sound, Washington and Oregon coasts, the Columbia River, and Central Valley California (Hanson et al. 2007, NWFSC unpubl. data)…
The proposed action (operation of the water system) has the potential to affect Southern Residents indirectly by reducing availability of their preferred prey, Chinook salmon. Central Valley Chinook salmon stocks are available to Southern Residents across their coastal range (based on coded wire tag recoveries, Weitkamp 2007); and available in greater magnitude south of Cape Falcon (O’Farrell et al. 2008). Any proposed action-related effects that decrease the availability of salmon, and Chinook salmon in particular, could adversely affect Southern Residents in their coastal range.
The Southern Residents population is sufficiently small and the probability of quasi-extinction is sufficiently likely that all individuals of the three pods are important to the survival and recovery of the DPS (distinct population segment). Representation from all three pods is necessary to meet biological criteria for Southern Resident downlisting and recovery. For these reasons, it is NMFS’ opinion that any action that is likely to hinder the reproductive success or result in serious injury or mortality of a single individual is likely to appreciably reduce the survival and recovery of the DPS…