Will California's SWRCB Allow Delta Smelt To Go Extinct?

Today, NRDC joined with our colleagues at the Defenders of Wildlife and The Bay Institute to ask California’s State Water Resource Control Board (“State Board”) to take emergency steps to save the threatened Delta Smelt from extinction. The State Board has the authority and the duty to preserve and restore California’s native fish and wildlife for future generations—that’s what it means to protect public trust resources. But the State Board has shirked this duty for years now, ignoring its own critical role in protecting the Delta and its species, while allowing federal fish biologists and the Endangered Species Act to do all the hard work. But, now, the State Board must act quickly if the Delta Smelt—the first in a long line of imperiled fish native to the Delta, including chinook salmon, steelhead, and sturgeon—is going to be saved.    

Our request for emergency action is based on recent urgent calls issued by biologists at the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (“USFWS”) and California’s Natural Resources Agency to increase flows through the Delta in the summer months to allow young fish to reach food-rich habitat and grow and survive to rear the next generation of Delta Smelt. On June 1, USFWS stated that providing these increased flows from June through September of this year was “critical to maintaining adequate habitat conditions for Delta Smelt.” USFWS has explained that the species’ population is so low that “[e]nsuring survival of this year's offspring [which the increased outflow is designed to do] is critical to the future existence of the species.” California’s Natural Resources Agency echoed these findings, calling for increased freshwater flows through the Delta this summer, and in subsequent years, to improve the condition of Delta Smelt, whose population has fallen to all-time lows.

Despite these urgent calls, the state Department of Water Resources (“DWR”)—an agency of the Natural Resources Agency—and the federal Bureau of Reclamation have utterly failed to provide the increased flows this summer, instead diverting the needed water to urban water agencies, like the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, that claim they no longer need to conserve because their water situation is so improved, and agricultural users that are generating record revenues in the drought. Since June 1, when the fish agencies called for increased flows, DWR and Reclamation have met the minimum level of flows only 10 of the past 69 days, and have basically stated that they are not going to try to increase flows through September, which marks the end of the increased outflow period defined by the fish agencies. That’s a 14% “success” rate and dropping. That wouldn’t even merit an “F” if the water agencies were being graded on this exercise.   

But the State Board has the power and the obligation to require these agencies to leave more water instream through September of this year, and in future years, to give the Delta Smelt a fighting chance. It’s long past time for State Board to exercise this authority. Even the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is losing patience with the State Board’s long-delayed update of its Bay-Delta water quality standards, noting the need for “more freshwater flow through the Delta” is "overdue by at least 3 years":

The time for the State Board to act to protect the Delta Smelt is now.  As recently as the 1970s, the Delta Smelt was one of the most abundant species in the San Francisco Bay-Delta.  It served as an important food source for other fish and wildlife and as part of a prosperous bait fishery in the Delta.  Delta Smelt were harvested by Native Americans for food, and, if restored, could again provide a local source of sustainably-raised protein.  As Congress pointed out when enacting the Endangered Species Act, the failure to act threatens not just them, but us:

[A]s species are threatened with extinction, we threaten their—and our own—genetic heritage. The value of this genetic heritage is, quite literally, incalculable. . . . From the most narrow possible point of view, it is in the best interests of mankind to minimize losses of genetic variations. The reason is simple: they are potential resources. . . . Who knows, or can say, what potential cures for cancer or other scourges, present or future, may lie locked up in the structures of plants which may yet be undiscovered, much less analyzed? . . . Sheer self-interest impels us to be cautious.

H.R. Rep. No. 93-412 at 4-5 (1973) (quoted in TVA v. Hill, 437 U.S. at 178). 

This blog provides general information, not legal advice. If you need legal help, please consult a lawyer in your state.

Related Blogs