The California Delta in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Valley is the second largest inland estuary in the Northern Hemisphere, and a truly special ecosystem and fishery. Formed by the convergence of some of the West Coast’s most famous rivers, the Delta is home to a number of prized resident and migratory gamefish. With ample opportunities for fly fishers to target striped bass, Chinook salmon, steelhead, shad, largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, carp, and panfish, it is a phenomenal fishery that offers endless rewards.
This entire ecosystem is in jeopardy as a direct result of poor resource management and unquenchable greed. Unsustainable water exportation from the Delta to meet the desires of corporate agriculture interests and cities in Southern California has been draining this estuary of its water for years, with each decade worse than the last.
Such exorbitant overuse causes significant environmental damage, and the effects of excessive pumping are taking their toll. Striped bass have become a key species in the conflict. These fish, and the fishermen who pursue them, have become targets of attack for corporate agricultural water mongers who only value the Delta for the billions of dollars they have made by milking it dry.
Stripers are a beloved gamefish, and the most common species pursued by fly fishers in the Delta. Stripers haven’t been in California forever, though. They were introduced in an 1879 planting of 132 fingerlings from New Jersey’s Navesink River, and an additional planting of 300 more in 1882.
Striped bass thrived in California’s waters due to the fact that there was an open ecological niche for a pelagic estuarine predatory species. Within 20 years there was a commercial harvest of well over a million pounds a year. In order to enhance the sport fishery, commercial harvest was banned in 1936. Striped bass and native Chinook salmon and steelhead coexisted with abundant populations throughout the Delta’s tributary waters for more than 100 years.
The Sacramento River, San Joaquin River, and the Delta they form have been essential irrigation water supplies for farmers since the Gold Rush days. Back then people figured out that there was more money to be made in feeding miners than digging for gold, and since that time, there have been small-scale water diversions by family farmers with riparian and senior water rights. This was well before striped bass arrived, and proved to be sustainable for many decades.
With the building of the Central Valley Project (CVP) in the late 1930s and 1940s by California and the federal government, major exportation of water out of the Delta ecosystem began. This project included two major dams, Shasta Dam on the Sacramento River and Friant Dam on the San Joaquin River, as well as a major pumping plant in the south Delta, and canal systems on the east and west sides of the San Joaquin Valley. When the CVP started pumping, it averaged 2.5 million acre feet per year from 1968 to 1971.
Additional water exports began with the building of the State Water Project. This started in part with work on the Oroville Dam after the disastrous floods of 1955. Full-scale construction started in 1960 after Californians passed the Burns-Porter Act and added an even bigger pumping plant in the south Delta.
Water started being pumped by the SWP in the late ’60s and reached the Los Angeles area in 1972. This pumping takes place through the California Aqueduct, a system of canals, pumps, and pipes that start in the Delta and end in a number of branches, the farthest south terminating in Perris Lake, outside of Moreno, California.
The combined pumping from the Delta by the state and federal projects averaged 3.85 million acre feet per year from 1972 to 1975, and gradually increased to about 5.4 million acre feet per year up to 1990. It dropped to about 4.3 million acre feet from 1991-95 and ramped up in the years from 1996 to 2007, culminating in a record export of 6.3 million acre feet in 2007.
As the pumping increased to unsustainable levels, salmon, steelhead, and striped bass populations all plummeted—as did many organisms at the bottom of the food web.
Fishermen, specifically those who target striped bass, have been the biggest lobby group working against this ecologically destructive diversion of water. Water contractors soon realized that the angling community was a sleeping giant that they had awakened. Protests from anglers in the state legislature, and lawsuits filed in the courts to stop the slaughter of our fisheries, made corporate irrigators realize their government subsidies—in the form of Delta water— might end. They hatched a plan to get rid of the striped bass, thinking with that accomplished, they would likely get rid of the “problem” anglers who pursue them. In theory, this would silence voices of opposition and leave a Delta with fewer stakeholders interested in its long-term health and preservation.
This strategic mission was behind the 2008 lawsuit filed by The Coalition for a Sustainable Delta, a nonprofit coalition that is actually a front group for corporate agriculture interests in California’s southern San Joaquin Valley. Stuart Resnick, a Beverly Hills billionaire who owns a number of businesses, including the Franklin Mint; Fiji bottled water; and a pistachio, almond, and pomegranate empire in the southern San Joaquin Valley desert, is the main financial backer of this group.
The misleadingly named coalition was created in order to file the lawsuit against the California Department of Fish & Game (CDFG) to effectively eradicate striped bass by removing all size and bag limits. Instead of going to trial, the defendants (CDFG) agreed to a settlement whereby they proposed egregious regulation changes that would lower the minimum size limit on striped bass from 18 to 12 inches, and raise the daily bag limit from two to five fish in most locations, with certain areas being 20 fish per day per angler.
The premise of both the lawsuit and the resulting proposed regulations was that the declines in endangered salmon and steelhead populations were due to predation by the introduced striped bass—even though the plaintiffs never proved that contention in court.
Every scientific paper on the subject agrees that the amount of water being pumped and diverted from the Delta is the biggest stressor on all endangered species in the Delta. The irony of this case is that with the front of protecting Chinook salmon and steelhead, the agricultural interests were probing for a ploy to get even more water, and put the final nail in the coffin of both native salmon and steelhead.
Fortunately, with the support of fundraising events like Dan Blanton’s StriperFest, which has raised $168,173 in the past 14 years to fight for Delta striped bass, along with significant effort by the Allied Fishing Groups, California Sport Fishing Protection Alliance, and others, the sportfishing community has won a temporary reprieve. Under pressure from these groups, the CDFG Commission voted against the proposed regulation changes, leaving a lawsuit settlement unfulfilled. A battle was won, but today the war continues.
Delta activists barely had a chance to celebrate before being blindsided by H.R. 1837, a bill that sponsored by Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) and cosponsored by representatives Jeff Denham (R-CA) and Kevin McCarthy (R-CA). Although the bill was opposed by over 200 organizations including fishing groups, tribal councils, environmental groups, family farming organizations, and California businesses, the bill—which was actually a water grab by powerful corporate agribusiness interests in the San Joaquin Valley—was passed by the House of Representatives 246-175.
Among its many devastating provisions were blocking the court-approved 2009 settlement to restore the San Joaquin River, exempting future water projects in the Central Valley from undergoing environmental reviews mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act, preempting state-level environmental laws by preventing California from protecting its waterways, and getting rid of science-based protection of endangered species required by the Endangered Species Act.
The Obama administration promised to veto H.R. 1837 because “It would codify 20-year-old, outdated science as the basis for managing California’s water resources, resulting in inequitable treatment of one group of water users over another.” A presidential veto was never required because Sen. Diane Feinstein helped to effectively gut the bill in the Senate.
Like a chess game, there are continual moves by agricultural interests to checkmate the water in the Delta, but so far, there has always been a fortuitous escape. At risk are all of the Delta’s inhabitants, not just striped bass. Without continued effort to see that this ecosystem is given legal precedent over corporate agriculture, hope for a future of fishing for the many species found here is bleak. As a result, public awareness and involvement are paramount in working toward a fish-filled future.
Striped bass have been used as a scapegoat by corporate agricultural interests, who have zero interest in the ecological health of the Delta. The truth is that striped bass have little to do with the decimated salmon and steelhead populations, and a sustainable balance needs to be restored where multi-generational farmers with senior water rights can continue to make a living off fertile land, while the Delta maintains sufficient flows to ensure a healthy ecosystem for all the flora and fauna that inhabit it.
While the propaganda cranked out by the public relations firms of corporate agricultural interests would have you believe the issues are about water for family farmers, it is really about privatizing a public resource (water) for the enrichment and personal gain of a select few. This comes at the expense of California taxpayers, and especially California anglers of all kinds. The fight must continue. The California Delta is too precious an ecosystem to lose.
Support the Dan Blanton StriperFest on the first Saturday in November every year. More info at danblanton.com/bulletin.php.
Sign up for the Restore the Delta newsletter at restorethedelta.org to keep up-to-date on important Delta issues.
Donate to the California Environmental Water Caucus or become a member of one of its caucus groups listed at ewccalifornia.org/members.
Loren Elliott is a California native who grew up fishing the Sierra Nevada for trout, and later became passionate about the Golden State’s striped bass and saltwater fly fishing. His website is lorenelliottflyfishing.com.