California Cities and Farms Need Healthy Delta for Clean Water, Says NRDC

Smelt Ruling is Opportunity to Restore Fresh Water Flows, Resuscitate Ailing Estuary

SAN FRANCISCO (September 6, 2007) – The San Francisco Bay-Delta needs an infusion of fresh, clean water, if California is going to continue to rely on it to supply thirsty farms and cities, according to the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit over the threatened delta smelt. Attorneys and experts at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) say a federal judge’s order to reduce the amount of water pumped from the delta is an opportunity to restore an invaluable resource to millions of Californians.
“The San Francisco Bay-Delta cannot properly perform its vital function of providing clean water for the people of California, if it is so degraded that it cannot even support the tiny delta smelt,” said Barry Nelson, co-director of NRDC’s western water project. “After years of increased diversions of fresh water from the delta, resulting in a sicker and sicker ecosystem, we finally have a judge’s order to give our water supply a break.”
NRDC said the ruling late last week by Judge Oliver Wanger in federal court in Fresno can help improve the quality of drinking water drawn from the delta. It said delta farmers who struggle to irrigate their crops with water that’s too salty from the overdrafting of the delta will also benefit from the judge’s order. In addition, the ruling will help protect the delta recreational fishing economy and the jobs of North Coast salmon fishermen.
"This ruling helps protect our wild salmon – healthy, delicious food that doesn't require a subsidy to get to the dinner plate – and the jobs of hard working men and women who bring that fish to market," said Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fisherman's Associations.
"Reducing export pumping should improve delta outflows which will improve water quality for delta farmers and for all export users as well," said Tom Zuckerman, co-counsel of the Central Delta Water Agency.
The judge ordered state and federal water project operators to take eight specific actions to protect the delta smelt. The actions fall into three categories:
  • Maintain minimum flow levels in Old and Middle Rivers from approximately late December through June to help delta smelt successfully spawn and rear a new generation of fish and minimize the extent to which they are killed by the project pumps. This can be done by reduced pumping, increased flows from the San Joaquin River system, or a combination of the two.

  • Prohibit the closure of barriers during a portion of the spring to help keep smelt away from the pumps when they are spawning.

  • Improve monitoring of the location and abundance of smelt in the estuary, and near the pumps in particular to help biologists determine what protective actions to implement at what time.
(NRDC has prepared a more detailed one-page matrix summarizing the eight actions ordered by the court. That document is available to interested journalists on request.)
Nelson said the state and federal agencies can protect the delta and delta smelt, while still maintaining an adequate supply of clean, reliable water to downstream users.
“ The key is to use water wisely,” said Nelson. “Water managers know how to do this. They’re prepared for the kinds of reductions that are needed to protect the delta smelt. Water agencies have built over 6 million acre-feet of surface and groundwater water storage south of the delta to help prepare for seasonal delta pumping reductions – that’s equivalent to 1.5 times the size of Lake Shasta, the state’s largest reservoir.”
The state’s own water plan, developed by the California Department of Water Resources, identifies conservation, water recycling and improved groundwater management as the biggest sources of new water for the state. All these sources can be tapped to ensure that there’s enough fresh water to keep the delta healthy and meet Californians needs.
Judge Wanger’s order is an interim remedy until the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service writes a new Biological Opinion on how the State Water Project and Central Valley Project can be operated without putting the fish at risk of extinction.
“We’re supposed to be taking care of our natural resources, not exploiting them to them to the point of collapse,” said Roger Mammon, president of the Lower Sherman Island Duck Hunters Association and board member of the West Delta Chapter of the California Striped Bass Association. “Whatever we do to improve the delta will also benefit people who fish, farm and drink its water.”
The delta smelt is a 3-inch fish that lives only in the San Francisco Bay Delta and is uniquely adapted to its mixture of saltwater tides and freshwater flows. But as increasing amounts of fresh water were pumped from the delta to Southern California, it has altered the estuary’s currents, temperature, and salt content. This has not only harmed the smelt; it has pushed the entire delta ecosystem to the brink of collapse.
“The delta smelt could be the first in a cascading series of fish extinctions,” said Nelson. “Other fish are also struggling, including salmon, sturgeon, striped bass, longfin smelt and threadfin shad. That’s not only bad for fish, it’s bad for people.”