“Waiter, there’s a dead delta smelt in my drinking water!”: why your drinking water might taste like cucumbers, if certain legislators get their way

California’s water supply system (the Central Valley Project and the State Water Project) relies on two sets of massive pumps in the Delta to deliver water to farmers and municipalities.  Unfortunately, those pumps also suck in and kill millions of fish, including tens of thousands of threatened and endangered species like salmon, steelhead, and delta smelt (see page 4-22 of the attached federal environmental analysis for one estimate of the annual toll).  The operations of the water projects, and the pumping plants in particular, exacts such a huge toll on the delta smelt that a federal judge last year ordered that pumping operations be limited to comply with the federal Endangered Species Act, in order to keep the delta smelt from going extinct. 

Now, however, a few State legislators have concocted a plan (Senate Bill 994) to exempt the water projects from pumping restrictions designed to protect the delta smelt, as long as the projects fund annual operations at a hatchery that would dump more smelt into the Delta.  SB 994 makes an end run around the California Endangered Species Act.  It requires the Department of Fish and Game to issue a permit to allow them to continue pumping and kill an unlimited number of delta smelt, provided that those water users pay to fund operations of a smelt hatchery.  Even if this plan would lead to the extinction of the delta smelt, the legislation would allow them to continue pumping.  There’s no evidence that SB 994 would help restore smelt populations, but the bill would require an exemption from the state endangered species law, with the intention of eliminating the court-ordered protections for delta smelt. 

Sound like a good idea?  What’s worse, Senate Bill 994 proposes to use your tax dollars to build this hatchery, which will do nothing to fix the underlying problems in the Delta.  And the legislation would result in the hatchery dumping millions of tiny delta smelt each year, many of which likely will end up… getting sucked into the pumps, thereafter destined for public drinking water systems.  One of the leading delta smelt biologists suggested that without addressing the habitat needs of delta smelt, “Trying to keep Delta smelt going by raising them in hatcheries and releasing them is like trying to raise sheep in a drought-seared pasture surrounded by a forest full of hungry wolves.”

So if SB 994 is approved, and your drinking water tastes like cucumber, that’s a bit of dead delta smelt in your glass (delta smelt smell like cucumbers)... ok, realistically, you’re not likely to actually ever taste it. But if you really want your water to taste like cucumbers, you should add cucumbers to your water – not endangered or threatened species. 

Voting for SB 994 is a vote to gut California's endangered species laws.  The Legislature shouldn't go for it.