San Joaquin River DOTMDL -- Technical Working Group

Bay-Delta Estuary Fisheries Imperiled by the South Delta “Improvement” Project

Fish Sniffer Magazine - January 01, 2005
By Dan Bacher

Urgent Action Alert!

I urge everybody concerned about the Delta's ecosystem - and the collapse of the food chain - to contact the Governor right away to declare a "cease fire" in plans to export more water south through the South Delta improvement project.

It would be insane to continue with this destructive project at a time when Delta forage species and juvenile striped bass have declined to their lowest levels ever! Please send this urgent action alert to everybody that you know!

Dan Bacher

Estuary Fisheries Imperiled by the South Delta “Improvement” Project

The Bay-Delta Estuary that once sustained multiple runs of salmon and abundant runs striped bass, American shad, sturgeon and steelhead, is on the verge of collapse. According to agency scientists, the estuary’s productivity is so low that it may be signaling the collapse of the ecosystem. Delta populations of key plankton and tiny shrimp that fuel the food web and drive the system’s ecology have virtually disappeared, as have some of estuary’s important species of fish including Delta smelt, longfin smelt, shad and young-of-the-year striped bass.

While fishery agencies have reacted with an increased effort to further study the reasons for this declining productivity, the state Department of Water Resources (DWR) has decided to move forward with their South Delta Improvement Project (SDIP) that would increase water exports out of the Delta by up to 25%!  The SDIP draft Environmental Impact Report will be circulated for public review this month.

The decision to move the SDIP forward in the face of a collapsing estuary can only make the estuary’s problems worse and do irreparable harm to its fishery resources. Our organization has been working to restore the estuary for twenty years, so its declining productivity is not new. Declines in salmon, steelhead and striper bass have become commonplace as has that of the food web. The decline in productivity has been clearly linked to the impacts that result from exporting huge amounts of water out of the Delta. What is new is the near total collapse in ecosystem productivity.

The SDIP may well be the straw that breaks the estuary’s back. If the food web is lost, it will result in the estuary’s fisheries not being able to find food where and when they need it for survival.

The food web is irreplaceable! Scientists have long maintained that water export affects the productivity of the estuary by changing the once natural flow regime and the amount of water that used to flow through it into the San Francisco Bay. Instead of the high spring runoff through the entire estuary, the water projects have greatly reduced these flows and the timing of when that water would normally be available to the estuary. The dramatic changes in this natural flow pattern and its timing is at the very hart of the problem.

State and federal water project facilities in the Delta export, on average, some 60% of the fresh water that flows into the system. Their storage of what was once natural runoff behind dams on nearly every tributary to the Delta has significantly reduced the spring flows which the phytoplankton and zooplankton had adapted to over millennia. The projects have increased Delta exports primarily in the late spring and summer to meet the needs of Central Valley agricultural interests.

While we understand that other factors such as toxic pesticides and unintentionally introduced non-native species may be involved in this collapse, this is not the time to be increasing exports! In order for the waters of the estuary to produce food, the water must stay in the system long enough to do so. When 60% of the estuary’s fresh water is exported annually, that leaves only 40% of the water to do what 100% used to do. Increasing exports beyond the current level can only make the situation worse.

If we are to completely understand and address the reasons for the collapse, increasing exports must be stopped until the solutions are found and our fisheries are recovered. CSPA is urging a cease-fire on additional exports until the ecology of the estuary and the recovery of its fishery resources is achieved.
Given the push to export more water by water contractors, the best way to stop the SDIP is to contact Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. We urge you to ask the Governor to stop the SDIP and any additional Delta export projects until the ecology and fisheries of the estuary are restored.

You can email the Governor by going to where you can fill out the email form and send it to the Governor’s office. Or you can send a letter or card to him at:

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger
State Capitol Building
Sacramento, CA 95814

You can also call or fax his office: Phone: 916-445-2841, Fax: 916-445-4633.

The message is simple; stop the SDIP and any additional water export out of Delta until our estuary and fisheries are restored.

It is time to raise our collective voice. The estuary is truly at stake!
John Beuttler

On Behalf of the CSPA Board of Directors
To contact CSPA for further information, send your email to: or call us at 510-526-4049
CSPA is a non-profit - public benefit organization dedicated to restoring fisheries and their habitat. We engage in variety of aquatic efforts and issues to ensure our fisheries have habitat they need to be self-sustaining and to stay that way. You can support our conservation efforts by becoming a member.

Donations are tax-deductible, greatly needed and most appreciated. Send checks to CSPA at1360 Neilson Street, Berkeley, CA 94702-1116. Membership starts a $25. If you are a member, then you know of the good work we do, so sign up a friend and help us restore our fisheries! Questions? Call me at 510-526-4049.

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