California levee repair blamed for killing thousands of game fish
Associated Press Writer
SACRAMENTO (AP) ” State and federal officials on Monday said they were investigating the death of thousands of game fish in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta after a federal agency drained the water around a protected island during a levee repair.
Masses of fish could be seen floating in shallow water on Prospect Island, a 1,253-acre plot next to Sacramento’s Deep Water Ship Channel that is administered by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
The bureau on Monday halted drainage of the remaining water behind the levee and started removing the fish carcasses, spokesman Jeff McCracken said. He said the agency would begin adding oxygen to the water in hopes of saving some of the remaining fish.
“When we realized how many fish were there, we quit pumping,” he said. “By then, we certainly, apparently, had passed the point of causing some fish loss.”
The bureau had no estimate on the number of fish killed. Bob McDarif, owner of Cliff’s Marina near the delta town of Freeport, estimated the number in the tens of thousands.
“It’s like a disaster out there,” he said.
The California Department of Fish and Game launched its own investigation Monday, focusing on how and why the fish died.
Although the fish deaths were on federal land, the striped bass, salmon, carp, bluegill and other game fish are considered public trust assets for the state. The results will be sent to state Attorney General Jerry Brown.
The levee under repair is around Prospect Island, which sits along the shipping channel about 20 miles southwest of Sacramento. The channel is the same stretch of water that served as a conduit for a pair of humpback whales that made an unlikely journey inland from San Francisco Bay last spring.
In a project that began in early October, the Bureau of Reclamation plugged two breaks in the 15-foot-high levee and repaired about 600 additional feet. The breaches occurred in January 2006.
Pumping the remaining water from behind the levee was the final step.
McCracken said the bureau received clearance from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to proceed with the repairs. Fisheries officials determined heavy vegetation would make it too hard to salvage the fish, but the contractor was advised to start pumping during the lowest tide of the month, which he did, McCracken said.
“To put nets or do things, they told us it wasn’t plausible,” he said. “We did instruct the contractor … to move as many fish out of the way as possible.”
The Fish and Wildlife Service studied the potential effects of the drainage project on the delta smelt, which is protected under the California Endangered Species Act. That study showed the levee repair was likely to have no effect on the fish.
State Fish and Game officials said they were notified about the die-off last Wednesday and were not involved in the levee project.
“We wish they would’ve consulted with us beforehand,” department spokesman Steve Martarano said. “We could have maybe given them some ideas on things to do.”
That could have included using sport fishing groups to help reduce the fish population before the water was drained or immediately rescue some fish. It also could have meant employing special water pumps that are less harmful to fish, he said.
McDarif, the marina operator, was first to sound the alarm about the stranded fish and said he has been frustrated by the slow response.
He recruited more than 100 volunteers to try to move the dying fish to the river, but he said his efforts were thwarted by federal officials.
“If I saw some fish dying now, I would go and take them out and move them to the river,” he said. “The thing is, there’s all these politics, and there’s no time for politics.”
The Bureau of Reclamation bought the island about 12 years ago as part of a planned Army Corps of Engineers program to restore fisheries and wildlife in the delta. Funding stalled, however, and the area was never developed.
The bureau had planned to sell the property this winter.
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