Protecting delta smelt - Will Water Still Come Out of the Tap?

Alternative water supply sources and the impacts of the delta smelt BO

Today, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued its long-awaited biological opinion on delta smelt. The opinion concludes that we must restrict water exports from the Delta to prevent the extinction of the delta smelt. While this tiny fish is perhaps not the most charismatic of species, it is a bellweather of the health of the estuary.  The smelt's dramatic decline, from one of the most abundant fish species in the Delta to the lowest levels on record in recent years, is driven in part by the water projects, particularly the record levels of water exported from the Delta over the past decade (five of the six highest levels of export in the history of the water projects occurred in the past decade). And the decline of the delta smelt echoes the decline of numerous other species that live and migrate through the Delta, including longfin smelt, steelhead, chinook salmon, and sturgeon.

Restricting water exports from the Delta is a critical component of a sustainable solution to the Delta, and the protections in the biological opinion echo the recommendations of Governor Schwarzenegger's Delta Vision Blue Ribbon Task Force, which found that existing water standards in the Delta "are increasingly recognized as inadequate" (p. 83) and that greater freshwater flows, particularly in the Spring and Fall months, are necessary to restore the health of the estuary and achieve the co-equal goals of water supply reliability and ecosystem health (pp. 83-88).  The Governor's Task Force called specifically for flow protections in the fall months that are very similar to those in the biological opinion.  And the biological opinion actually increased the amount of water that could be pumped in some months as compared with the existing court rules.

We agree with Delta Vision that a comprehensive solution is needed, one which restricts water project operations to a sustainable level, while investing in alternative water supply sources, restoring water quality and habitat, and reforming the agencies that govern the delta and the state and federal water projects.  But restricting water exports to a sustainable level is a critical component of a comprehensive solution; such a solution, regardless of whether it includes a peripheral canal, is not a silver bullet that will somehow allow exports to continue unabated. It is time to have a realistic conversation about a peripheral canal, recognizing that in order to operate such a facility in a sustainable manner, it is unlikely that it would yield substantially greater exports. The days of ever-increasing amounts of water exported from the Delta appear to be over.

Fishermen, farmers, and communities are all suffering from the failure to sustainably manage the Delta, particularly water exports from the Delta.  There is no question that there will be some hardships as a result, although its not clear how much.  DWR's own data released today suggests that complying with the protections in the Biological Opinion will have similar impacts to the existing court rules in the most likely scenario.  In addition, the graphic below  shows that California can meet its water supply needs while also protecting the environment by investing in alternative water supply sources like conservation, wastewater recycling, and low impact design that captures stormwater. 

As California transitions from its 20th century water policy to a 21st Century water policy that invests in these alternative sources of supply, it is critical that the State and federal governments help those who are most affected, whether they be fishermen who lost their entire salmon fishing season, or farmworkers who can't find work. 

Ultimately, as this op-ed argues, protecting the delta smelt protects farmers and fishermen, too.  California can meet the challenge of protecting the environment and water supply. We hope that tomorrow's Delta Vision Committee meeting will be another step towards a visionary, bold, 21st century water plan that solves the challenge in the Delta.  It couldn't come a moment too soon.