Watch CBS News

Are California water pumps putting endangered fish species at risk of extinction? Experts say so.

Are California and federal water pumps killing endangered fish species?
Are California and federal water pumps killing endangered fish species? 03:01

SACRAMENTO -- Are state and federal water pumps killing critically endangered fish species?

Environmental activists say it is a well-documented problem in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta that is now out of control. They accuse state and federal water projects of knowingly putting certain at-risk fish species in grave danger of extinction.

"What we are seeing is just the tip of the iceberg of a much larger problem," Jon Rosenfield said.

Rosenfield is the science director of the nonprofit San Francisco Bay Keeper and a fish biologist.

"We are in a dire situation with the fish coming out of many years of mismanagement with the drought," he said. "This is an opportunity to let them have a good year and, instead, we are killing them."

Powerful pumps, supplying much of the state's water, divert water from the delta to other California communities in the southern part of the state.

However, those pumps are also sucking in fish trying to migrate from local rivers.

The most at-risk are certain endangered Chinook salmon populations and threatened steelhead trout.

"As they pull the water across the delta, they are also pulling baby fish that are trying to migrate out to the ocean. They are pulling them across the delta as well," Rosenfield said. "The fish are trying to find their way downstream and when water is being drawn across the delta to these pumps, it looks like that is downstream."

When the fish are pulled into the pump infrastructure and canals, they are being killed at "alarming" levels," Rosenfield said.

"There are permits for the state and federal water projects that allow them to kill a certain amount of endangered species incidental to their operation," Rosenfield explained. "But right now, the state and federal water projects have exceeded the number of fish that they are allowed to kill."

That is why a group of environmental advocates are sounding the alarm. They sent a letter to state and federal agencies outlining what they say is evidence that the governmental bodies have surpassed the legal threshold for killing steelhead trout and winter-run Chinook salmon, asking for immediate action to be taken.

"This would be just a reduction in exports in order to allow the river to flow toward the Bay, rather than flowing toward the pumps," Rosenfield said.

They want the state and federal agencies to immediately reduce the amount of water pumped from the delta for up to two weeks to help the fish get back on track. They say this would come at no cost to the state's water supply.

"Decades and decades of doing that and years and years under the Newsom administration of flouting environmental regulations and refusing to acknowledge the science about what these fish need is putting them on the brink of extinction," Rosenfield said.

Karla Nemeth, director of the State Water Project, said they have already been adjusting their pumping operations to protect endangered species.

"However, SWP operations have never been this restricted in a wet year as they are this year. These restrictions are keeping us from being able to capture and store the water that we need if we see a return to drought conditions," Nemeth said. "With a likely return of La Niña, now is the time to capture and store this water while it's available."

Nemeth further said that most of the Chinook salmon and steelhead trout collected at fish screens in front of its pumps are collected alive and moved downstream from the pumps.

Meanwhile, the Pacific Fishery Management Council voted Wednesday to keep the California ocean salmon fishery season closed again this year.

The decision reflects the recommendation of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, provided in a letter submitted to the Council, Advisory body input and through public comment.

"The salmon have taken quite a hit these past years, with the in-river water conditions and also in the ocean, some ocean warming temperatures that affected their survivability," Robin Ehlke told CBS13 before the vote.

Ehlke is a salmon staff officer at the Pacific Fishery Management Council.

"The runs quite frankly have not improved enough to where there is confidence that we conduct even a small fishery and stay within our conservation needs for that stock," Ehlke said. "We're seeing some improvements in especially the ocean environment and we hope we can turn things around."

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.