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Agencies Admit Fish Blunder in Failing to Stop Massive Delta Kill

Stockton Record – 12/7/07

By Hank Shaw

RIO VISTA – Federal and state bureaucrats have managed to destroy one of the Delta’s richer nurseries for baby fish at a time when populations of both sport fish and threatened species are at an all-time low.

Officials with both the federal Bureau of Reclamation and the state Department of Fish and Game publicly apologized Thursday for not doing enough to stop a massive fish kill two weeks ago on Prospect Island, just north of Rio Vista.

“We didn’t go far enough,” said John Davis of the Bureau of Reclamation. “We should have gone the extra mile, and we should have reached out to the community.”

Assemblywoman Lois Wolk, D-Davis, convened a hearing of the Assembly Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee in Rio Vista to try to find out what went so wrong.

“What we saw was a failure of government agencies to protect the public trust,” Wolk said.

After several hours of testimony, the story that emerged from the hearing is a tale of bureaucratic inertia and corner-cutting that resulted in the government inadvertently destroying the one thing struggling fish in the Delta need: a place to raise their young.

Prospect Island’s tale began in January 2006, when a levee broke in a storm, flooding the narrow island. A decade before, the Bureau of Reclamation bought the 1,235-acre island for $2.8 million with the intention of making it part of a larger national wildlife refuge. Prospect Island’s purpose in this plan was to be flooded so it could serve as habitat for fish and birds.

But in September 2002, the project needed $1.9 million in state money to remain viable, and CALFED chose not to provide the cash. So the bureau abandoned the plan and began looking to unload the island. After the 2006 storm, money for levee repairs was scarce, so the bureau did not begin its work until October of this year.

Before beginning, the bureau checked with state and federal wildlife agencies to make sure pumping the island dry would be OK. The state Fish and Game Department said it would be, so long as they did the work at low tide during a period when the threatened Delta smelt would likely be elsewhere in the estuary. The agencies relied heavily on information gained from an earlier levee break on the island in 1998.

This proved fatal. The repairs in 1998 occurred with little incident. But this time, fish of all stripes and shapes and sizes had flocked to the flooded Prospect Island during the 22 months it was under water.

One reason was because all the debris – trees, shrubs, etc – submerged by the floodwaters provided perfect structures for fish to raise their fry. This same structure made rescuing the fish tougher because volunteers couldn’t easily drag nets through the water to save the animals.

Volunteers almost didn’t get a chance to help at all.

Levee repair crews noticed fish dying on Nov. 15, Davis said. Four days later, bureau staff visited the site but did nothing. They returned the next day, but by this time the local fishing community had noticed the die-off and began clamoring for a rescue effort.

A full week passed before bureau employees began the rescue, rebuffing volunteers who gathered to help. Davis said they were worried about legal liability.

It took two weeks from the time the levee crew first noticed the crisis for the government to allow volunteers on site to help.

By then, the island, mostly drained, was a stinking graveyard littered with the bloated bodies of dead striped bass, bluegill, carp, shad and other fish. Most of the stripers – the most important sport fish in the Delta – were adults. A few topped 20 pounds.

With the aid of the volunteers, the bureau and state officials stabilized the situation, and thousands of fish are still swimming in a shallow spot on the island that remains flooded.

Fish and Game investigators are looking into possible criminal charges against the bureau; fines could potentially run into the millions of dollars if the agency charged the federal government with wanton waste of a game fish.

Anglers say they’re not holding their breath about the bureau paying for its mistake. After all, this is the same Bureau of Reclamation that routinely chops up thousands of fish inside the giant pumps outside Tracy.

“The laws we have on the books have been ignored for years and years,” said Gary Adams of the California Striped Bass Association.