Killing the fishkill -- a success story

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Killing the fishkill -- a success story

Tom Stienstra, San Francisco Chronicle

May 5, 2002

It was the kind of moment that you never forget, the feeling that something is not quite right.

It was the early 1980s. We were paddling a canoe down the Sacramento River, heading 400 river miles from Redding to San Francisco, doing it in a week, camping on sand bars and flats along the way.

By late the second day, south of Red Bluff, we started seeing huge pipes rammed into the river like straws into a giant drink, more than a thousand of them over the course of 200 miles. Then, near Hamilton City, it appeared that about 25 percent of the river was being diverted into a canal.

Something about it didn't feel right. I thought of my aquarium back home, where if you didn't filter the intake, that the fish would get sucked right into the impellers and be killed.

It was a hot afternoon, and we stopped in the shade of a patch of cottonwood trees to take a break, and met a farmer who was also trying to cool off on the river bank. After a few minutes of small talk, I asked him if the water intake pipes were killing fish.

"Oh yeah, they kill 'em by the thousands," he said with an unforgettable wry pout. "The fish just get sucked right in and get trapped in the ditches or get pumped right on the fields. When we dry out the fields, you can see the fish skeletons all over the place."

In the years of investigations that followed, it turned out that the diversion for the Glenn-Colusa Canal alone was killing about 10 million to 21 million juvenile salmon per year, depending on the strength of the run. This was equal to all the baby salmon produced by the Coleman Fish Hatchery in Red Bluff, and that more than 1,000 unscreened pipes were killing unknown millions more.

Now, 20 years later to the month, it is all getting turned around. Wrongs are being righted, and it is one of the best stories of the year for fish and wildlife for northern California.

These fish-killing machines are finally being fixed with state-of-the-age screening at tremendous cost.

The Glenn-Colusa Canal, once called the "Doomsday Diversion," has been fixed with a fish-screening system that will be formally dedicated in a ceremony later this month. It cost $76 million, with the Bureau of Reclamation and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service the lead agencies on the project.

At the same time, five other major fish-killing diversions on the Sacramento River are in the process of being screened at a cost of $58 million,

to be completed within three years.

"When this project is completed, there will be no more major unscreened diversions on the Sacramento River," said Jeff McCracken of the Bureau of Reclamation.

In addition, over the past 10 years, state and federal agencies have worked with farmers to screen the smaller diversions, the pipes that look like giant straws. "More than a thousand have now been screened," McCracken said.

This will result in more fish for recreation -- salmon (four runs), striped bass, shad, steelhead, trout, sturgeon and catfish -- and more food for wildlife in the river's riparian habitats, from mink to bald eagles. The projects could also help bring back an endangered species, the winter-run salmon, which try to live in the river as juveniles when the level of water pumping is highest.

None of these projects would have occurred without the Endangered Species Act, or the cooperation of a dozen arms of the state and federal governments. While occasionally flawed in its application in the field, the ESA has been the hammer hanging over the heads of everybody that forced the issue: To stop killing an endangered species, the winter-run salmon.
 

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