DFG, Conservation Groups Blast Federal Government For Fish Kill On American River!

by Dan Bacher

Dissident Voice
March 8, 2003


In a disturbing scene that has occurred much too often on the American River in the past two decades, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation last month raised and then subsequently dropped flows on the American River, resulting in the deaths of thousands of salmon fingerlings and the dewatering of steelhead redds (nests).


While federal officials claim the dramatic drop in releases from Nimbus Dam from 4,500 to 2,000 cfs the last week of February was necessary for conserving water for fall run salmon, as well as for Delta smelt and agricultural and municipal users, state fishery biologists and environmental groups say the drop in flows couldn’t have occurred at a worse time for endangered wild steelhead and king salmon.


Mike Healey, Department of Fish and Game fishery biologist, estimates 10,000 salmon fingerlings have died by being stranded in dewatered side channels of the river. “This is a rough estimate because once the redds are left high and dry, the birds come in fast to feed on the fish,” said Healey.


The situation with the American River’s spawning steelhead is even more precarious, since a large number of wild steelhead have returned to spawn in the river’s riffles over the past two months. Of 12 steelhead redds in the Sunrise area, Healey said 3 are high and dry, 2 are barely wet and the other 7 are languishing in stagnant water. He estimated that approximately 10 percent of the total redds sampled have been dewatered or cut off from the main river.


The reason for the high flows, ramped from 3,500 to 5,500 cfs on February 10, was to alleviate Delta salinity problems caused by lack of freshwater inflow. American water is used to maintain Delta salinity standards for Delta smelt and other species because water released from Folsom can reach the Delta in one day, whereas water released from Keswick Dam on the Sacramento River can take 5 to 7 days.


“If the Bureau drops flows even more to 1500 cfs, they will strand more steelhead and salmon,” said Healey. “They need to think of ways to alleviate the impacts that drops in flows cause to fish. They are making no effort to use other water, such as water from Keswick Dam, at critical times for American River steelhead and salmon. It’s the old story of robbing Peter to save Paul. Water quality in the Delta and water for downstream water users seem to be considered more important than the fish on this river.”


Jeff McCracken, spokesman for the Bureau of Reclamation, was quick to dismiss the impact of the drop in river flows and the reports of stranded salmon and steelhead. “It’s not unusual that when you make big releases and ramp them down that there will be some tradeoffs,” he stated. “The question is how can we manage the water now so that it can be used later for fishery purposes, such as maintaining cold water for fall run salmon.”


He claimed that the number of fish killed is an “insignificant” amount, not much different than if flows rose and dropped naturally with the arrival of natural inflows from a storm on the river. “For example, if a rainstorm brought the river up 1,000 cfs, there would be natural stranding after the river dropped. My impression is that an insignificant amount of fish were impacted by the drop,” he explained.


He emphasized that the Bureau has sought the input of river stakeholders and government agencies in its “American River operations group,” and was careful to drop the flows slowly over a 4 day period, rather than all at once.


In addition, Bureau officials are constructing a $2.3 million temperature control device on Folsom Dam, similar to the one now in place on Shasta Dam, that would release colder water into the river when needed for salmon and steelhead.


On the other hand, Felix Smith, former federal biologist and Save the American River Association board member who serves on the operations group, emphasized that the timing was bad for the salmon fry emerging from the river gravel - and even worse for naturally spawning steelhead that anglers, environmental groups and state and federal government biologists have worked so hard to restore.


“If they had raised and dropped the flows during May, June and July, it wouldn’t have the impact that doing it now did,” said Smith. “My major concern is for the steelhead. The naturally spawning fish are the ones we are trying to protect. We will never have a viable natural run of steelhead if they keep managing the river like this!”


Due to the restoration efforts of groups like United Anglers, Save the American River Association and others, runs of wild steelhead have rebounded on the American over the past eight years. For example, on a trip with Rene Villanueva of Steelie Dan’s Guide Service on February 27, all five fish that I caught and released were wild steelhead with full adipose fins. On that day, we could already see the gulls, mergansers and other birds gorging on the salmon and steelhead eggs in de-watered redds.


“This is one of the best years I’ve seen for returns of wild fish,” said Villanueva. “This drop in flows is very detrimental to the recovery of a fish that is supposed to protected under the Endangered Species Act. Now that lots of natives are coming back to the river, it’s terrible to see thousands of fish dying in dewatered redds and side channels.”


A change in Bureau policy over the timing of releases is needed to prevent the needless death of steelhead and salmon from taking place in the future. The Bureau must take a serious look at how it manages flows at critical times for steelhead and salmon spawning.


I urge everybody to contact Jeff McCracken, Bureau of Reclamation public affairs officer, protesting the recent fish kill on the American River and demanding that incidents like this be prevented from taking place in the future. Contact Jeff McCracken, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, 2800 Cottage Way, Sacramento, CA. 95825, (916) 978-5100, jmccracken@mp.usbr.gov.


Daniel Bacher is an outdoor writer/alternative journalist/satirical songwriter from Sacramento California. He is also a long-time peace, social justice and environmental activist. Email: danielbacher@hotmail.com


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