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In the High Sierra, it never rains but it pours

Sacramento river levee

Massive federal irrigation pumps, sucking up a bounty of water after an abundant California rainy season, are wreaking  havoc on already-stressed fish species, while state and federal officials fret that sudden and sustained heat in the High Sierra could cause devastating flooding.

After several drought years, this year’s appearance of  La Niña delivered an unusually wet winter to much of California, dumping a near record snow-pack, refilling reservoirs and allowing officials to lift most restrictions on irrigation.

But as Kelly Zito of the San Francisco Chronicle reports, millions of fish, including endangered Chinook salmon, have been eviscerated by pumps on the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Environmentalists are outraged, calling it a fish massacre. Meanwhile, federal conservation officials say that the staggering totals — six million splittail during May alone, and 50,000 Chinook salmon since October — are proof that there are plenty more fish out there.

The splittail, like the endangered delta smelt, is a minnow-sized fish that serves as a food source for larger, commercially-valuable fish and is considered an indicator of the health of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the state’s largest estuary and source of much of California’s drinking and irrigation water.

At the same time, federal officials at both the Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corps of Engineers are bracing for the risk of flooding that could test earthen river levees throughout much of California. As Peter Fimrite of the San Francisco Chronicle reported Wednesday, late storms and persistently icy temperatures over the High Sierra through the spring, have left unusually deep snows, later in the season than usual. With the state’s major reservoirs at or near 100 percent capacity, officials are now concerned that a lengthy warm spell in the high country will cause a meltdown that could overwhelm the state’s flood control system.

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