Protecting endangered fish sparks debate at site of old Bay Bridge

SAN FRANCISCO (KTVU) - Protecting an endangered fish has taken center stage in the ongoing debate about how to demolish part of the old Bay Bridge.

A drought-threatened fish, which sometimes lives near the Bay Bridge, has now become the focal point of how and when the old Bay Bridge will be dismantled beneath the water line.

But, some environmentalists say the bridge isn't the real threat to those fish.

The Longfin Smelt is a spawning fish that grows to four or five inches in length and wanders over a wide range of rivers, the San Francisco Bay estuary, and the ocean.

"They used to be the most abundant fish in this estuary and now, they're among the most rare," said Bay Institute conservation biologist John Rosenfield.

Dismantling the underwater pillars can be done mechanically, but that would create a lot of noise and pounding for months. They could also implode the pillars with highly controlled blasts that would collapse them in a few seconds. Either way, some nearby fish would be killed. 

"It was really clear that the level of impact from the controlled charges would be much, much lower," said Stefan Galvez, the Bay Bridge environmental manager.

Populations of the Longfin Smelt and many others have been severely compromised by low water flows resulting from the drought and rerouting of much water to farming and urban use down south.

"So maybe this is not the year to do this particular project," said biologist Rosenfield.

"If they can wait until next spring, that would be great. Maybe we'll have a wet spring then," said Bruce Herbolt, environmental consultant and former estuary expert at the Environmental Protection Agency.

In reality, environmentalists say what happens at the bridge pales in comparison to the real threat - too much Delta water being diverted from the Bay.

"If flows don't improve, flows from the Central Valley rivers throughout the Delta into the estuary don't improve, this fish will go extinct," said Rosenfield.

The California Water Resources Control Board and the State Department of Fish and Game have already waived some water flow fish protections in the Delta - allowing for a relatively small - but now potentially increasing amount to be pumped south for agriculture and human health and safety.

"Rich people tend to be politically powerful and we have a system that delivers more riches to rich people by the way we allocate water," said Herbolt.

"That's going to have a tremendous impact on this species and that's why it's on a countdown to extinction," added Rosenfield.

Farming interests, especially big ag, are rich and powerful, fish are not; which makes the Smelt, somewhat of a political pawn at the Bay Bridge.

"It's ironic that the Department of Fish and Wildlife is focused on that potential impact while they're granting waivers... waivers of environmental protections that safeguard this species in the Delta," said Rosenfield.

"Caltrans would not proceed with a type of project that would create or jeopardize the continuing existence of the species," said Caltrans Environmental Manager Galvez.

Some suggest simply leaving the pillars in place, in the water, with their tops sticking a few feet above the water line. They say to leave the fish alone and allow birds to nest on top.

Properly marked and protected, they would be no hazard to navigation because the big ships go under the Bay Bridge on the western span between Yerba Buena Island and San Francisco.