A super-sized silvery minnow found only in Clear Lake is the newest threatened species in California, representing a victory for environmentalists and Indian tribes and a potential threat to Lake County ranchers and others who draw water from the lake’s tributaries.
The Clear Lake hitch, once abundant in the shallow lake and a food staple of Native Americans for millennia, is now struggling for survival after decades of dam-building, water diversion, mining and pollution have damaged or isolated most of its spawning grounds.
Last week, a coalition of Lake County citizens, tribes and an Arizona-based conservation group found a powerful ally in the California Fish and Game Commission, which unanimously approved a proposal to designate the hitch as a threatened species, a step that prevents any harm, even if it is incidental, to the fish.
As the first and only fish to gain state or federal protection in the Clear Lake basin, the hitch’s new status opens the door to potential limits or even prohibitions on water diversion, as well as possible requirements for expensive habitat restoration.
It’s the same principle that curtailed pumping water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta into the California Aqueduct at the expense of Central Valley farmers and for the sake of endangered smelt. And it has Lake County agriculture interests on edge.
“There are some very deep concerns,” said Lake County Supervisor Anthony Farrington, whose district includes livestock ranchers and growers of grapes, pears and walnuts west of the lake.
Boating and fishing on the 68-square-mile lake are unlikely to be affected by the hitch’s new status, but water users along the surrounding creeks are wary, and communities drawing water directly from the lake could also be affected.
“This is a big deal. The hitch is already in trouble,” said Sonke Mastrup, the commission’s executive director. “It could have implications for water diversion — there’s no doubt about it.”
The state Water Resources Control Board will be the arbiter of any new limits on water rights, and the hitch’s designation establishes “a new priority to complaints alleging impacts to the fishery population or its habitat,” spokesman George Kostyrko said.
Water rights permit holders and applicants could be required “to implement mitigation projects that would have not been required previously,” he said.
Advocates for the hitch hailed the commission’s action, calling it long overdue.
“It’s questionable whether they are going to recover,” said Sarah Ryan, environmental director for the Big Valley Rancheria Band of Pomo Indians, one of three tribes represented at last week’s commission meeting.
Clear Lake hitch, which grow up to a foot long and are one of only four native species left in the lake, are sacred to the Pomos, who have inhabited the area for 11,000 years and in recent times traditionally smoked and dried the fish at gatherings and festivals, she said.
As recently as the 1970s and ‘80s, hundreds of thousands of hitch swam in the ancient lake and surged every spring up all or most of the lake’s 17 tributary stream systems to spawn in shallow water. It’s not clear how many remain in the lake now, but researchers have said it is likely in the range of 5,000 to 10,000.
Dams, bridge abutments and other structures have limited most spawning to two systems, Adobe and Kelsey creeks, which flow into the west side of the lake.