Red Herrings and Delta Smelt

2009 Water Supply Conditions (DWR)

Today's editorial in the Wall Street Journal tries to blame all of the Central Valley's woes on the tiny delta smelt, and on a lawsuit by NRDC, in order to perpetuate myths about the impacts of protecting endangered species in the Bay Delta. 

As with all good myths, it starts with a grain of truth - and the truth is, there are real problems in the Central Valley.  Some of these problems have been ignored for years: farm workers and disadvantaged communities that lack access to safe drinking water and safe working conditions, and unemployment levels in many Central Valley communities that are far worse than the rest of the State - even in rare wet years when farmers get 100% of their allocations.  Those problems have been exacerbated by more recent events - the collapse in dairy prices, the foreclosure crisis and job losses in the construction industry, the global recession, and the past three years of drought.

But rather than addressing the many aspects of these all too real problems, the Journal wants to blame everything on a tiny fish in order to fan the flames of the right wing fantasy of overturning the Endangered Species Act (ESA). 

Yet the Journal's argument just doesn't hold water. 

First, Endangered Species Act protections for delta smelt aren't just about a tiny fish.  Nor are those protections only about protecting the Bay Delta estuary, the largest estuary on the west coast of the Americas, home to migratory birds on the Pacific Flyway, to magnificent salmon that migrate past the Golden Gate Bridge through the Delta, and to numerous native fish and wildlife.  

No, it's not just about fish - it's about people, too.  It's about commercial fishermen like Mike Hudson who depend on the ESA protections the WSJ wants to eliminate (don't take my word for it - read what he says here).  Mike and other commercial fishermen in California have been unable to earn their living fishing for salmon for the past two years because our Central Valley salmon populations collapsed, resulting in the closure of the salmon fishery for the first time in the State's history.  Delta farmers, commercial fishermen, recreational fishermen, boat salesmen, tackle manufacturers, charter fishing boat operators, fishing guides, hotels and restaurants, and many other hard working, decent people and communities depend on these Endangered Species Act protections in the Delta for their livelihoods.  And we can't forget, when tallying the costs of our water woes, that the closure of the salmon fishery resulted in several thousand lost jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in lost income in 2009, and similar numbers in 2008. 

Although the WSJ singles out NRDC, we sued the Bush Administration as part of a coalition of sport and commercial fishermen, Tribal members, and conservation groups to stop radical increases in water pumping from the Delta not just to save the tiny delta smelt, but to save the salmon fishery, to save the Delta estuary, and ultimately, to save California's heritage. 

Second, eliminating the Endangered Species Act wouldn't eliminate the drought or fallowed fields across the state.  As this chart from the State shows (available online here), nearly three quarters of the reduction in water supplies this year is due to drought, not the ESA. 

Despite both, many farmers and water districts in the San Joaquin Valley are getting 100% of their water supplies, while those water districts with more junior rights face significant cutbacks and have to purchase more expensive water on the market or pump lesser quality groundwater. 

Three years of drought, not the ESA, is driving low water allocations across the State, not just for contractors of the State and federal water projects.  It's also why farmers north of the Delta who get water from the federal Central Valley Project, and who are upstream of any pumping restrictions to protect delta smelt, are only getting 40% of their contractual allocations.  In addition, some farmers are fallowing their fields because they are selling their water rights for tens of millions of dollars.  And although the WSJ and others want to blame all of the unemployment on the ESA, drought, foreclosures, recession, and many other factors are driving unemployment in the Valley. 

Ultimately, the recent protections for salmon and delta smelt are necessary to protect the Bay Delta estuary and its endangered fish and wildlife, and the State's multimillion dollar salmon fishery that depends on it.  These protections underwent numerous scientific peer reviews and are based on the best available science.  "Revisiting" these biological opinions, as the WSJ encourages, is something out of the playbook of the Bush Administration and its war on science - a chance to let the politicians overrule the biologists, so the water projects don't have to play by the rules.  Our fish populations, salmon fishermen, and communities across the State are already suffering from the last attempt to "fix" the rules and allow greater pumping from the Delta.

Delta smelt make a convenient scapegoat, but driving smelt and salmon to extinction by eliminating the ESA won't solve the Valley's problems.  What's needed is a far more comprehensive program of investing in alternative water supplies like groundwater banks and water recycling, continuing to improve agricultural water use efficiency and practices, developing "solar farms" and new green jobs, and helping people get through these tough, dry years.