Water Woes’ Next Player: Killer Whales

Water Woes’ Next Player: Killer Whales

Southern Resident Killer Whales swim through Monterey Bay in January 2008. Photo Courtesy of Nancy Black/Monterey Bay Whale Watch.

Sunday, Feb. 22, 2009 | The killer whale, a local icon, is the latest species whose survival is threatened by massive pumps in Northern California that deliver almost a third of San Diego’s water, federal officials have concluded.

A National Marine Fisheries Service analysis has determined that massive pumps that annually send billions of gallons of water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to the rest of the state are contributing to a decline in salmon populations. Chinook salmon, commonly called king salmon, spawn in the delta and spend much of their adult lives in the Pacific Ocean, where killer whales prey on them.

Salmon stocks plummeted to historic lows last year, prompting an unprecedented closure of commercial salmon fishing from the U.S.-Mexico border to Oregon. Typically, hundreds of thousands of adult salmon return to the Sacramento River to spawn. Last year, just 66,000 adults came back. Salmon runs throughout the West Coast similarly suffered.

The NMFS, the federal agency charged with managing the nation’s fisheries, concluded that the declines are in turn jeopardizing killer whales, which prey on salmon. Though typically associated with Puget Sound, the whales swim as far south as California’s Monterey Bay in search of food. Other clans of killer whales, or orcas, live in the northern Pacific and in seas around the world.

The finding highlights the connected relationships in the West Coast’s marine food web. What happens in the Sacramento Delta affects life throughout the Pacific Ocean. The conclusion also gives environmental groups a dynamic marine mammal to use as a poster child to highlight the deleterious effects of delta pumping. Until recently, the icon that defined the delta’s decline was the endangered delta smelt, a three-inch fish that smells like cucumbers and sits on the verge of extinction.

Now it’s Shamu.

That’s a significant shift. San Diego’s drinking water supplies have been crimped since 2007 because of drought and regulatory protections for the delta smelt. Now six other endangered species have lined up behind the smelt, potentially further restricting water supplies.

The fisheries service hasn’t released its recommendations yet for protecting the killer whale. But steps could include reducing pumping from the delta, the source of 30 percent of San Diego’s water last year. Such a move would reverberate across California.

The 738,000-acre delta, which stretches from San Francisco Bay east to Tracy and Sacramento, is a vital water source for farmers and cities throughout the state. The delta is fed by Sierra Nevada snowmelt, providing water for at least 25 million residents and 3.7 million acres of agriculture.

But mountains sit between the delta and Southern California. Massive pumps must be used to draw water about 225 feet up into an aqueduct that then winds 444 miles south to Southern California. Those pumps are blamed for sucking in juvenile fish and degrading habitat.

The delta is also an important estuary and breeding ground for salmon and other fish. The salmon that spawn there have become an important food source for the clan of killer whales typically associated with Seattle’s Puget Sound.

The clan historically stuck around Puget Sound — until 2000, when the first killer whales were spotted off the California coast near Monterey Bay. With Chinook salmon populations declining in the Pacific Northwest, the whales began swimming south in winter to search for food. They’re voracious eaters. The southern resident population consumes about 560,000 pounds of salmon annually, said Ken Balcomb, executive director of the Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor, Wash.

They’ve continued returning to California ever since. The Sacramento River’s Chinook salmon now provide about 10-15 percent of the whale population’s annual sustenance, Balcomb said.

California’s salmon decline led the whales to return early to Puget Sound this winter, Balcomb said. If salmon counts stay low in California and Pacific Northwest salmon don’t rebound, the whale population will drop, he said.

The killer whale population in Puget Sound numbered as high as 97 in the 1990s. But the population has dropped as the marine mammals endure threats from salmon declines, toxic chemicals and ship traffic. The whales were listed as endangered in 2005, meaning that they are threatened with extinction.

Today, 85 killer whales constitute the southern resident population.

“This whole thing is like a teeter-totter,” Balcomb said. “One (salmon) run does well and another does poorly. In general, the trend for Chinook salmon, coast-wide, is down. If it keeps going down coast-wide, the whales will suffer a population decline.”

The National Marine Fisheries Service is considering what steps it needs to take to prevent that — an evaluation it launched after being sued by a consortium of environmental groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council and The Bay Institute.

“This certainly points to the interconnected ecosystem,” said Maria Rea, supervisor of the service’s Sacramento office. “The whales are here and part of California’s ecosystem.”

Reducing delta pumping is possible, Rea said, though she declined to discuss details. The service has not made any recommendations yet. They’re due in federal court in Fresno on March 2.

The service is seeking a three-month delay, though, and hopes to provide recommendations in June. Environmental groups want interim measures in place to ensure that fish are protected in the meantime. Both sides will make arguments Monday in federal court before U.S. District Judge Oliver Wanger, who issued the landmark 2007 order that protected the delta smelt from pumping impacts. The decision limits the amount of water that can be pumped from the delta from December through June.

The fisheries service’s plans will include recommendations to protect other endangered species threatened by the pumps, including two Chinook salmon runs, the green sturgeon and the Central Valley steelhead.

Tina Swanson, executive director of The Bay Institute, a San Francisco-area environmental group, said the service needs to comprehensively evaluate how much water can be reliably delivered through the delta without damaging habitat or harming endangered species.

State and federal officials “have sought and promised to deliver more water than they reliably can for decades,” Swanson said. “In the future, less water is going to be delivered to customers from the delta — which includes your readers.”

San Diego’s water supplies have been pinched since Wanger ruled in 2007 that state and federal officials needed to consider how delta pumping affected the delta smelt. At the time, environmental groups described the smelt as an indicator species for the Sacramento Delta’s ecological health.

But the delta smelt stood alone, a three-inch fish pitted against California’s agricultural and urban water users. State Sen. Dennis Hollingsworth, R-Murrieta, and 27 other Republicans recently urged Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to ask the federal government to convene the “God Squad” — a seven-member committee of federal Cabinet-level officials with the power to waive endangered species protections. The God Squad has the authority to determine that human interests outweigh the benefits of keeping a species from extinction.

As other fish suffer, such a step grows more difficult. The Sacramento Delta’s problems are no longer solely about the delta smelt. Add the longfin smelt, a tiny relative, as well as the killer whale, the two salmon species, green sturgeon and Central Valley steelhead.

And that has San Diego water managers concerned. While local officials have called for a canal to be built around the delta, allowing drinking water deliveries to avoid sensitive habitat there, the concept has not advanced. Until a solution is identified, local water managers say supply cuts like those expected in July will remain a threat in coming years.

San Diego imports about 90 percent of its water from the Colorado River and the delta. But droughts on the delta and Colorado and the delta pumping restrictions have left the region facing a potential water shortage for the first time in two decades.

“[Fish] are lining up. That’s the big concern,” said Ken Weinberg, water resources director at the San Diego County Water Authority. “You don’t have a chance to recover in the wetter years. There’s no hope. Dry years you lose supply and wet years you can’t store it — you can’t move enough water. It’s untenable. We have to move the pumps.”

Please contact Rob Davis directly at rob.davis@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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