Feds to consider protecting fish unique to Clear Lake

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is initiating a study of a proposal to designate the Clear Lake hitch as threatened or endangered.|

A federal agency’s decision to consider protection for a large silvery minnow found only in Clear Lake, hailed by environmentalists and Native American tribes, is also renewing concern over its potential impact on water use and economic development around the lake.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Thursday it is initiating a yearlong study of a proposal to designate the Clear Lake hitch as a threatened or endangered species, elevating the level of protection for the fish and its spawning habitat around the 68-square-mile lake.

“It is a big step,” said Jeff Miller of the Center for Biological Diversity, the conservation group that requested the federal action three years ago. The agency should have responded within 90 days, but a backlog of endangered species applications delayed the matter, he said.

“Better late than never,” Miller said.

Four Native American tribes and California native fish expert Peter Moyle of UC Davis backed the proposal to safeguard the fish, now struggling for survival after decades of dam-building, water diversion, gravel mining and pollution have damaged or isolated most of its spawning grounds.

In August, the California Fish and Game Commission unanimously granted state threatened species status to the hitch, making it the first and only fish to gain state or federal protection in the Clear Lake basin.

Federal protection would augment the protection by including a recovery plan by the Fish and Wildlife Service aimed at halting the hitch’s decline and setting goals for restoration of its habitat, Miller said. The plan would not be binding, nor would it impact landowners unless they were seeking to develop property, he said.

But the prospect of federal action has revived worries around the lake, considered the county’s economic cornerstone as an urban and agricultural water source and recreational mecca, popular with boaters and Jet Ski users and rated the third-best bass fishing lake in the nation.

Conflicting water claims are sharpening as California copes with a fourth year of drought, said Sarah Ryan, environmental director for the Big Valley Rancheria Band of Pomo Indians, one of the backers of the move to protect the hitch.

“Hopefully this will not turn into a war between agriculture and the environment,” she said, acknowledging that use of water in Clear Lake’s tributaries is a potent political issue that must nonetheless be addressed. Illegal water diversions by marijuana growers compound the problem, she said.

No new water use regulations have been issued since the state designation last year, but “it’s only a matter of time,” Lake County Board of Supervisors Chairman Anthony Harrington said.

Any development that affects water flow in streams with hitch-spawning potential would be subject to greater scrutiny if the hitch come under federal protection, he said.

Worries about water supply prompted a winery owner to drop plans for a 200,000- to 300,000-case facility near Kelsey Creek in favor of a possible location in another county, Farrington said. The winery, which Farrington declined to name, would have been in his district on the west side of the lake in the county’s prime farming area.

Advocates for the hitch’s protection say it could open the door to federal funding for environmental restoration projects, which Farrington said “sounds good in theory.”

“My response is ‘show me the money,’” he said, noting that Lake County is usually “underserved” by federal dollars. The supervisors have not formally considered the federal designation, but Farrington said he doubts the county will support it.

County voters last year rejected for the third time a sales tax measure aimed at raising $24 million over 10 years to combat noxious algae blooms in Clear Lake and protect it from invasive mussels, and backers said they would not likely try again.

Scott Knickmeyer, chairman of the pro-tax Save the Lake Committee, said the county still hopes to fund its share of a $48 million dollar restoration project in the Middle Creek area at the north end of lake, aimed at improving water quality and curbing algae growth.

There are mixed feelings about protecting the hitch, he said, as some fear it could limit bass fishing while others think it might promote fishing because bass, a non-native species, are voracious predators of hitch.

The Lake County Association of Realtors, which Knickmeyer heads, has not taken a position on federal protection for the hitch, he said.

Clear Lake hitch, which grow up to a foot long, once numbered in the hundreds of thousands in the ancient lake and surged every spring up all or most of its 17 tributary stream systems to spawn in shallow water. But dams, bridge footings and other structures have limited most spawning to Adobe and Kelsey creeks, which flow into the west side of the lake. Hitch are strong swimmers, but they can’t jump like salmon to surmount obstacles, Miller said.

The last strong hitch spawning run was in 2010, when a survey by citizens and tribe members counted 10,000 fish in Kelsey and 1,000 in Adobe Creek. The population has gone into a “tailspin” since then, Miller said, with about 500 hitch tallied in both creeks in 2013 and 2014 and 800 in the spawning run that is now tapering off this year.

“There are so few fish you worry about the fish finding each other to spawn,” Miller said, calling the hitch “a step away from extinction.”

Ryan, the tribal environmentalist, said she hopes the competing factions can find “middle ground” that supports agricultural and urban water use, as well as the fish. Hitch were once sacred to the Pomos, who have inhabited the area for 11,000 years.

“The fact of the matter is the fish were here first,” Ryan said, noting California waterways are legally obligated to support farms, fish and people. “We’re trying to find a balance.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service is taking public comment on the hitch protection proposal though June 9. Comments may be filed online at the federal rule-making portal - www.regulations.gov - and entering the docket number FWS-R8-ES-2015-0017 in the search box.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com.

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