California kills 2 million fish in 3 days

  • Published on May 21st, 2011


The carnage of imperiled native fish continues to accelerate in the state and federal water project pumps on the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

These massive pumps deliver subsidized water to corporate agribusiness on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley and southern California water agencies.

On May 18, the federal Central Valley project pumps took 792,730 Sacramento splittail, an imperiled native minnow found only in the Central Valley and Delta. The State Water Project took 20,268 splittail the same day.

In just three days – from May 16 through May 18 – the federal pumping facilities killed 1,864,659 fish. The federal pumps took 546,668 splittail on May 16 and 525,261 splittail on May 17.

During the same three-day period, the State Water Project pumps took 36,011 splittail, with 10,028 entrained on May 16 and 5,355 on May 17.

Massive kill

The combined total for the federal and state pumps for the three day period is 1,900,670 splittail!

The federal and state pumps also continue to kill hundreds of threatened spring run Chinook salmon every day. The total carnage adds up to over 11,000 Chinook since the beginning of the year.

The federal pumps killed 256 Chinooks and the state facilities took 546 salmon on May 16. The federal pumps entrained 424 spring Chinooks and the state pumps took 140 Chinooks on May 17. Finally, the federal pumps entrained 199 salmon and the state facilities took 178 fish on May 18.

Representatives of fishing and environmental groups and California Indian Tribes reacted with outrage to the news of the increased take of Sacramento splittail and continued killing of threatened spring run Chinook salmon in the Delta pumps.

“Obviously, the juvenile splittail are near the pumps now and are getting massacred,” said Jeff Miller, Conservation Advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity. “Splittail respond well to wet water years, so we got a lot of reproduction this year. The question is whether the fish will survive to breeding age.”

Miller said it was unacceptable for the pumps to kill so many fish. “It is presumed that all of these fish will die, although they call their removal of the fish from the pumping facilities ‘salvage.’ These are fish are either dead already or at the point where they’re not going to make it.”

“What good does it do for the government to sponsor programs, funded with millions of dollars, to restore endangered species when the simplest of acts, shutting down the pumps, would do so much for the preservation of endangered species and those other fish that rely on the endangered species for their survival,” said Mark Franco, headman of the Winnemem Wintu.

John Beuttler, Conservation Director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance (CSPA), noted that the state and federal governments don’t mitigate for the splittail, salmon and most of the other fish they kill.

“They have done mitigation over the past several decades for the ESTIMATED losses of salmon, steelhead, and striped bass, but even those losses are just modeling estimates which are about as good as the assumptions used to design the model” said Beuttler.

“These bandits should be officially investigated and the findings presented to the public,” explained Beuttler, “given the significant losses the projects cause to anadromous and other native fish and the fact that the mitigation has not worked to kept these populations from crashing. The entrainment models they used need to be scientifically checked against what is really killed. Instead, the water projects ride roughshod over the ‘facts.'”

To top it off, the State Water Project has failed to properly honor and implement their mitigation agreement with the DFG, according to Beuttler.

At the same time, the state and federal contractors that are demanding ever-more water have refused to install state-of-the art fish screens in the state and federal pumps, as mandated under the CalFed Record of Decision to protect fish, emphasized Bill Jennings, Executive Director/Chairman of CSPA.


Central Valley spring-run Chinook were listed as threatened under both the state and federal Endangered Species Acts in 1999. Only three of 17 original wild spring-run Chinook populations remain in the Central Valley, and numbers of spawning adult salmon are down to as low as 500 wild fish in some years.

The Sacramento splittail was listed as a threatened species, but then delisted in 2003 during a political scandal under the Bush administration.

Unfortunately, the Obama administration, forced by a Center for biological diversity lawsuit to revisit the tainted Bush era decision to strip Endangered Species Act protection for the fish, issued the inexplicable determination that listing this critically imperiled species was not warranted in October 2010.

The Department of Fish and Game fall mid-water trawl surveys have documented dramatically declining numbers of Sacramento splittail since 2002 and barely detectable numbers in the past few years.

What Can You Do?

Please contact John Laird, California Natural Resources Secretary, and demand that he take immediate action to stop the killing of millions of Sacramento splittail and thousands of threatened spring run Chinook salmon by the Bureau of Reclamation and Department of Water Resources!

Here is his contact information:
California Natural Resources Agency
1416 Ninth Street, Suite 1311
Sacramento, CA 95814
(916) 653-5656
(916) 653-8102 fax
Email: secretary [at]

Also, please help Central Valley Chinook salmon and Sacramento splittail by writing a letter to stop Legislation by Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) aimed at gutting protections in the Bay-Delta Estuary and blocking the restoration of the San Joaquin River. Send your letter by going to the Center for Biological Diversity website,

More on California’s water wars:

Dan Bacher is the Editor of the Fish Sniffer online and print magazine. He blogs at Sacramento for DemocracyAlternet and DailyKos.

About the Author

Dan Bacher is an environmental journalist in Sacramento who focuses on California's water issues, a healthy environment for the salmon fishery of the Northwest, and the attempts by big agriculture and big oil to hog all the water.


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