California determines delta smelt is endangered - and then seeks to reduce its protections?

 The tiny endangered delta smelt has become a popular target for anger over low water allocations this year.  It's not a charismatic species - not many people love a three inch long fish that smells like cucumber and lives only in the Bay-Delta estuary.  But there are farmers and fishermen who support protecting the delta smelt, because they realize that protecting the smelt protects their economic interests.  NRDC has sought to protect delta smelt in order to protect the estuary and its salmon, migratory birds, and wonderful wildlife, as well as to sustain farmers, fishermen, and all of us who depend on healthy, clean drinking water.

Delta smelt are a native fish that were historically one of the most abundant fish in the Bay-Delta estuary, but the 2008 survey results  declined to the lowest levels ever recorded.  Earlier this year, the California Fish and Game Commission voted to list delta smelt as endangered, having found that "the delta smelt population in California has declined significantly since its listing as threatened and the species' abundance is now extremely low."  Populations of longfin smelt, striped bass, steelhead, salmon, and many other species that live in, or migrate through, the Delta have also declined precipitously in recent years.

Although many people blame the delta smelt for low water supplies this year, the Department of Water Resources has acknowledged that it is drought, not the Endangered Species Act, that are causing the low water allocations, and without these protections allocations might increase by 5%.  Since I last blogged about agricultural water supplies in the Central Valley, the Bureau of Reclamation has increased water allocations, resulting in nearly 4 million acre feet of water estimated to be delivered to farmers in the Sacramento and Central Valleys this year.  There's no question that this is still going to be a tough year for many growers, and that all of us have to conserve water even more than usual this year, but the delta smelt are a symptom, not the cause, of California's water woes.  

In 2007, after exhaustive court hearings on delta smelt and the water projects, the federal district court judge concluded that the best available science demonstrated that "current operations of the CVP and SWP could result 'in irreparable harm' by imminently threatening the continued existence of the Delta smelt and adversely modifying its designated critical habitat," and that operations are "increasing risk to the survival and recovery of the Delta smelt and adversely modifying its critical habitat." Based on the findings of fact and conclusions of law, the Court ordered interim protections for delta smelt while a new BO was prepared.

The new delta smelt BO came out in December 2008, and it largely continues the delta smelt protections in the Court's 2007 order, while also adding two new measures: restoring wetland habitat, and restoring flows for fish in the fall months of wet years.  The BO underwent 3 separate peer reviews to ensure it was based on the best available science.  The fall flows in particular are based on peer reviewed science, and they implement recommendation 3.4.4 of the Delta Vision Strategic Plan.  Because 2009 is a dry year, the fall flows won't be implemented this year, and probably won't be implemented next year.

Yet today the Department of Water Resources asked the federal government to reduce protections for delta smelt.  What gives?

It seems as though DWR forgot that the court proceedings in 2007 ever happened, as the State seems to argue that it is the other stressors in the Bay Delta estuary - water pollution, habitat reduction, invasive species, and climate change - that are the cause of the delta smelt decline. 

No one disputes that in order to recover the species, we are going to have to address these other stressors.  But the peer reviewed science in the 2008 delta smelt biological opinion - consistent with the Court's findings in 2007 - demonstrates that the operations of the state and federal water projects cause some of the biggest impacts on delta smelt.  The huge pumps that export water from the delta are so powerful that they effectively make water in the Delta run upstream towards the pumps, sucking the tiny delta smelt (and salmon, striped bass, and other species) into the giant export pumps.  In addition to these more obvious direct effects, some of the most important impacts may be indirect, as the water exports cause dramatic changes in the hydrodynamics and water quality in the estuary, dramatically reducing the amount of available habitat for delta smelt.  

NRDC and The Bay Institute today sent this letter to the Fish and Wildlife Service and Bureau of Reclamation, urging them to continue implementing the existing BO, instead of starting to create a new BO less than 6 months after this one was done. 

It's very disappointing to see the State asking the federal government to reduce protections for delta smelt, and undermining the recommendations of the Governor's Delta Vision Strategic Plan.  We're very concerned that the State seems to be cherry-picking recommendations from the Strategic Plan.  It is just these kinds of decisions that suggest a need to reform governance of the water projects, so that they are managed for the interests of all Californians, not just the project contractors. 

Today's action by the State certainly won't help the smelt, and probably won't help water supplies this year, either.  But it will exacerbate conflict and takes a step away from building a comprehensive solution, based on the Delta Vision Strategic Plan, that we can all support.

About the Authors

Doug Obegi

Senior Attorney, Water program

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