Arnold the Fish Terminator

California governor campaigns for canal, more dams

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger ramped up his campaign to build a peripheral canal and more water storage facilities with four major press conferences July 16-24, at northern California’s San Luis Reservoir, Twitchell Island in the Delta, Long Beach and San Diego.

Schwarzenegger introduced his $5.9 billion water plan in January that invests $4.5 billion to develop additional surface and groundwater storage. The plan also includes $1 billion toward “restoration” of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, including “development of a new conveyance system,” his euphemism for a peripheral canal to shunt water directly from the Sacramento River north of the Delta to pumping stations in the southern part of the state.

The governor’s proposal for the canal, and for more “research” on Delta smelt, has drawn intense criticism from Restore the Delta and fishing groups now battling to stop the collapse of Delta smelt and other fish populations, the result of increasing water exports in the past several years.

After touring the Delta in the Twitchell Island area with Department of Water Resources (DWR) officials and others July 17, the governor directed DWR to act immediately to “improve conditions” in the Delta, to help restore its natural habitat and “protect” the Delta smelt and other species.

“Today, I am calling for actions to help restore the Delta, the largest estuary on the West Coast and home to hundreds of native plant and animal species,” Schwarzenegger said, trying to add a green veneer to his latest call for the canal and more water storage facilities. “The Delta is also one of the most vulnerable areas of our state. It faces dangers of contamination from a natural disaster or rising sea levels. And, we saw an example of its vulnerability when we had to shut off the pumps for nine days to protect the threatened Delta smelt.”

One of the “actions” he pinpointed was “to improve research on the Delta smelt,” completely ignoring the massive increases in water exports that state and federal scientists and conservationists consider to be the No. 1 factor behind the dramatic decline in four Delta pelagic species — Delta smelt, longfin smelt, threadfin shad and juvenile striped bass.

“State and federal agencies will upgrade and continue operation of a smelt culture laboratory,” he said.

In response to a question from this reporter about what he was going to do to prevent Delta smelt from becoming extinct, he responded, “We shut the pumps down nine days this year. We are looking at various new technologies to employ so that the smelt won’t go through the pumps.”

Other actions that Schwarzenegger called for include preventing the spread of invasive species, screening Delta agricultural intakes to protect smelt, restoring North Delta habitat and improving Central Delta water flow patterns.

Ann Hayden of Environmental Defense provided the only dissonant note in the otherwise carefully choreographed love fest.

“Environmental Defense is encouraged that Gov. Schwarzenegger is committed to moving forward on interim actions to restore habitat in the Delta,” said Hayden. “While this is a step in the right direction, more needs to be done. We hope the governor will also take other immediate actions to help imperiled fisheries. Such actions include addressing the impacts that inadequate freshwater flows and high rates of export pumping are having on key species.”

Fishing groups, the Winnemem Wintu Tribe and the Restore the Delta Coalition, who weren’t invited to the Delta event, criticized the governor’s plan for failing to consider reductions in water exports or building effective fish screens on the Delta pumps.

“While several of these items including emergency preparedness and levee maintenance are endeavors that Restore the Delta supports,” said Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, the group’s coordinator, “our supporters are stunned that the governor, who recently said that water projects have been studied to death, is simply calling for more research on the Delta smelt without taking more decisive action to save the fish from extinction.”

She said that first and foremost, fish screens need to be installed on the State Water Project pumps as mandated in the CalFed (California-Federal Bay Delta Program) record of decision.

“While installing fish screens on state agricultural projects, as called for in the governor’s directive, may help to protect some fish, Sherman and Twitchell Islands are not where the majority of Delta smelt are being killed by pumping,” she pointed out. “While restoring natural habitat and improving Central Delta water flow patterns are productive steps, they will not bring about true restoration for the Delta without a reduction in water exports.”

She and other Delta residents also blasted the governor for failing to back down from his mad drive to build a canal, even after intense criticism by a broad coalition of fishermen, farmers, Indian tribes, conservationists and Delta residents that building the canal would mean final destruction of a Delta ecosystem now in collapse.

Mark Franco, headman of the Winnemem Wintu (McCloud River) Tribe, said Schwarzenegger’s concept of building the peripheral canal and more water storage facilities to somehow “restore” the Delta goes against the very core of indigenous people’s concept of the earth.

“Traditional people see the earth in balance,” said Franco. “If you take something from the earth and don’t replace it, it takes everything out of balance. For example, our McCloud River salmon were introduced many years ago to New Zealand where they are now thriving, but the salmon are no longer in the McCloud. They shifted the balance, and the salmon are now in collapse.”

He said California Indian lands have been damaged, abused or taken away every time that a dam has been constructed. For example, Shasta Dam flooded the traditional villages and sacred sites of the Winnemem Wintu, and the tribe has never been compensated, nor has the destruction been mitigated, since the dam has been built.

The proposed raising of Shasta Dam, which the tribe adamantly opposes because it would flood the tribe’s remaining sacred sites, is an integral part of state and federal government plans to increase water exports out of the Delta via the peripheral canal.

“The rivers are the arteries of the earth,” he noted. “Building more dams and a peripheral canal to save the Delta is like putting a tourniquet on your arm and leaving it there. If you don’t take it off, you will die.”

Bill Jennings, executive director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, blasted the governor’s Delta plan as “a smokescreen masking a proposal for massive increase of northern California water for desert farms in the south state.”

“Schwarzenegger is asking the taxpayers to buy something, the peripheral canal, without being willing to show us what he is asking us to buy,” said Jennings. “We really don’t know anything about the canal — its size, its capacity and its operating parameters. He could care less about the Delta and sees it only as a nuisance standing in the way of increased exports.”

“Schwarzenegger is as green as a silk plant,” quipped Barrigan-Parrilla. “When you get up close, you realize that is all a big fake.”