Federal Government Calls for Stronger Delta Smelt Protection

Preventing Extinction for Fish Offers Chance to Solve California’s Water Woes

SAN FRANCISCO (December 15, 2008) – The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) says the delta smelt, already listed as a threatened species, needs greater protections if the species is to survive, according to a biological opinion released today.  

“Fish need water to survive,” said Doug Obegi, staff attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Today’s opinion reflects the conclusion of numerous scientists and the Governor’s own task force, who all agree that the delta smelt need additional protections to keep them from going extinct. The opinion requires the state and federal water projects to operate in a more environmentally sustainable manner that better protects delta smelt, salmon, and the fishermen and farmers who depend on healthy fisheries and clean water.”
Earlier this year, Governor Schwarzenegger’s Delta Vision Blue Ribbon Task Force likewise recommended reducing water exports from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta in the spring and fall months, in order to protect the breeding ground for the smelt, and important habitat for several other threatened and endangered fish populations. Today’s opinion results from a 2007 federal ruling that required FWS to issue a biological opinion that complied with the Endangered Species Act.
Data from the state Department of Water Resources demonstrate that investments in water supply alternatives (including water conservation, wastewater recycling, conjunctive groundwater management, and low impact design to capture stormwater) could yield more new water each year than previously exported from the Delta – enough to supply 14 million homes each year.  
Tom Zuckerman, a farmer in the Delta who works as special projects manager for the Central Delta Water Agency said, “Delta farmers also depend on water to raise our crops.  We know that the water projects have simply been pumping too much water.  Delta farmers and our local economy will benefit from adequate protections for the delta smelt.”
The peer-reviewed Formal Endangered Species Act Consultation on the Proposed Coordinated Operations of the Central Valley Project (CVP) and State Water Project reflects years of scientific study and requires state and federal water projects to modify water exports to prevent the extinction of the delta smelt. The opinion’s protections should reduce the number of delta smelt killed in the pumps and should protect suitable habitat to allow juvenile smelt to grow and reproduce.
“The business community in Contra Costa Country believes that a healthy Delta strengthens Contra Costa County’s economy,” said Bob Whitley, a member of the Board of Directors of the Contra Costa Council, a business advocacy organization.  “We believe that scientifically supported protections are essential for protecting the Delta environment, as well as Contra Costa County and the state’s economy.”
The recent decline of the delta smelt and other species coincides with significant increases in freshwater exports out of the Delta by the state and federal water projects. In the history of the state and federal water projects, five of the six years with the highest levels of water exports have occurred since 2000. Scientists point to the increased water exports as a significant cause of the delta smelt’s decline.
“Greater protection for the smelt translates into more protection for the Delta and economically important fish such as the salmon,” said Zeke Grader, Executive Director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations. “To restore the smelt and the salmon, overdrafting water of the rivers and Delta has got to stop.”
In 2006, Governor Schwarzenegger established the Delta Vision Blue Ribbon Task Force to develop a plan to sustainably manage the Delta. Sustainably managing water exports from the Delta is a critical step in preventing the extinction of delta smelt, salmon and other fish species. The Delta Vision Strategic Plan lays out a comprehensive solution to meet California’s water needs while protecting the Delta environment. The plan calls for reducing reliance on water exports from the Delta, investing in alternative water supplies, reforming the agencies that manage the water projects, restoring habitat and water quality, and realistically evaluating new water conveyance infrastructure.  
“We look forward to working with the Governor and legislature to implement the Delta Vision Strategic Plan’s bold, innovative 21st century water plan. This plan can solve California’s water woes, restore the Delta ecosystem and save California’s salmon fishery,” said Obegi.
For more information on the opinion, go to Doug Obegi’s blog: http://switchboard.nrdc.org/blogs/dobegi/