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

Doug Obegi

Posted May 8, 2009

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 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.

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Barbara W-FMay 8 2009 10:13 PM

I am very dismayed to learn that over 30 thousand people are losing their jobs over this fish! I am more than dismayed to learn that a whole industry in California is being destroyed by your actions. I am disgusted that your so called environmental movement is destroying the livelihood of so many Americans and destroying the capability of our country to produce the food our people need.

You are a bunch of fools and have acted in an irresponsible way in this action. You should be ashamed of yourselves and believe me I will let all that I know of your stupidity.

Dr. Michael MorrisonMay 8 2009 10:27 PM

Pantheists are possibly the second oldest religion in the world. Your group is of course an excellent example of what happens when a country allows a enviro-religious group, such as the nrdc, to gain such influence through the elevation of their beliefs to the level of a "state religion", you are of course not alone, there are many other splinter groups, who have been allowed to impose their will on the majority. By using poorly designed "scientific studies", reversed engineered to attain the desired result, elevating very average public college trained "scientists" to the level of "high priests"/experts, and perjuring yourselves on a regular basis, you and groups like you are severely injuring the businesses, health, and homes of people throughout this country. Of course, this is a part of your agenda, to control every segment, as far as possible, through the flimsiest of legal processes, by perverting the meaning of the endangered species act. There is a backlash coming, when food becomes difficult to attain, when energy becomes prohibitively expensive, and when the standard of living for all of us is reduced to the level of a third world country, the blame will be placed where it belongs, with the nrdc, with the liberal courts, and with liberal politicians who fostered your existence. The internet never forgets, it records everything your group has done, the lies, half-truths, and the manipulation of raw data to suggest something is real that is only a figment of your imagination. How sad that your group has chosen to damage people instead of helping them. But that is your choice, and you must suffer the consequences when the public cannot get food or fuel...Dr. Mike. Yes, a "real doctor" one that writes prescriptions, and treats people, not inconsequential plants and animals.

J KingMay 9 2009 01:30 AM

"All comments offered in the spirit of civil conversation are welcome! Commercial spam, obscenity and other rude behavior are not, and will be removed. We are also required to remove any express or implied statement endorsing or opposing any political party or candidate for political office. Comments require a valid email address and typically remain open for 10 days. Please sign comments with your real name (first names are fine)."

These are your own regulations, listed directly below my post, on guidelines for posting comments. This sums up your desire to have a one sided argument, with no room for debate or compromise. So in the spirit of your regulations, so this post will not be deleted because it emphaticaly disagrees with your views, I am not going to be obscene, rude or endorse any political party or canidate for office. I will solely express views of a dying breed of people, views of people with COMMON SENSE, DISCUSSION, COMPROMISE, REALITY, AND A DREAM OF A COUNTRY THAT STILL HAS ENOUGH HUMILLITY TO SIT DOWN AND FIGURE OUT COMMON SENSE SOLUTIONS TO OUR PROBLEMS. My second post will follow below this. That is if you don't delete this one first.

J KingMay 9 2009 02:09 AM

There are so many things that are going through my mind right now I am having trouble thinking. If my spelling is not 100% please forgive me, no spell check and I am so angry I can't stop typing. This might, might be the biggest disgrace in the history of our Country. First, I am not saying that there is not a problem here. Honestly, I don't know how much these "fish" are impacted. However, are you telling me that there is no other solution other than putting THOUSANDS OF HUMANS out of work? We put a man on the moon and we can't figure out a way to get the water to the farmers without, or diminishing the death of these fish? Here is an idea from a person who has little knowledge of the particular irrigation setup in place but owns a construction and irrigation company. why can't there be some kind of filtering system which filters the fish out of the lines and back into the water supply, or to a different area? Regardless if this can be done or not what your doing is absolutley insane! I agree that we need to have enviormental regulations in place. I am not one of these people who do not believe that we need to protect wildlife and conservation. I DO BELIEVE IN environmental regulations however, there needs to be a common sense approach to it and this is not it. What you do, and groups like you do, is push away anyone who is in the middle. When people see the damage your ignorant agenda does to other people in this country they are turned off. Your so blinded by your views that you can't see this, and most likely don't care because you are being "POLITICALLY CORRECT". We have come from one extreme of years of serious environmental damage to another extreme of environmental extremism. there has to be a middle ground and your actions will eventually bring this country to the middle. Over time, people will start to stand up to your insanity and begin to fight in numbers. Those people will take over this fight with a common sense approach and will put all extremist out of a job and I mean extremist on both sides. You cannot be extreme left or right and get anything done, there has to me a middle. Any extremist, no matter what there view, is a danger to this country and must and will be stopped. Time will take care of this. Once normal people start to lose jobs or have to pay more for food, they will investigate. When they learn of whats going on you will be out of a job. It is only a matter of time before common sense prevails over extremism. I hope it happens soon and every one of you are out of a job just like the jobs you are taking away from people as we speak. In this economy, I hope it makes you happy that you are making it much worse for average people. Best of luck in your journey on taking over the country. Just don't think people are not going to stand up and fight for what is right for this country. Enjoy the battle you won because you will not win the war.

J KingMay 9 2009 02:33 AM


Groups like yours remind me of acorn. A group that may have started off with good intentions, but one that ends up full of coruption and greed. The eviornment will take a back seat to your need and want for power.

Art N. LivestockMay 9 2009 07:12 PM

Just curious folks, but at what point would the drought be so bad that you'd be willing to stop draining the Delta? When it's dry?

I'd like to see the normal people suffering (and dying--a number in the low thousands each year) from smog investigate the governor and the pressure put on him by Central Valley growers to veto, year after year, bills placing a modest fee on containers to help clean the air near our state's ports. Is a couple bucks on a truckload of product too much to ask? Especially given that (mostly urban) taxpayers have essentially provided the valley with subsidized water for decades.

Just asking.

K TurgeonMay 10 2009 12:29 AM

I have to agree whole heartly with J King's comments. As much as I am concerned about (fish) wildlife, I'm finding it difficult to believe that a no one has been able to come up with a reasonable solution to this problem. I consider myself to be a Conservationist. I support the practice of producing goods and services for humans without depleting the ecosystem. With that being said, the measures taken to preserve a fish has desimated an entire community. As a result thousands of people have lost their jobs and Farmers are unable to farm as well as losing their Farms. What happens when the bread basket of California cannnot produce food? We must rely on other Countries for our food supply. If anyone is remotely concerned about food safety, please consider the differences between imported vs. domestic produce. The food safety requirements for most Foreign Countries pales in comparison to California's food safety standards. Not to mention when supply and demand kicks in. Be prepared to pay more for your food. One has to ask if allowing a fish to exist in it's natural habitat is worth cost of 30,000 or more people losing their jobs, Farmers unable to produce their crops, rising food costs, not to mention relying on Foreign Countries to fill the gap. Rather than depriving the Farmers of Water in order to save a fish, Why can both sides come up with a solution that allows the fish be salvaged by means of relocation? Were better than this, were Americans. As J King mentioned, if we can figure out how to put a man on the moon, why can we figure out how to save a fish?

m speerMay 10 2009 11:59 PM

why dont you environazis find a way to HELP people instead of stealing there lives and taking there livlyhood from them just so you all can have big bank accounts and stroke each others egos the time will come when god asks each one of you what you did to help your fellow man and all you will be able to say is you saved some tiny fish but turned away 80,000 of his people what will say on judgement day? sorry i was wrong? god fogives fools but has no tolerance for arrogance and liars i hope he forgives you for you god-like actions good luck with that. foolish humans

Doug ObegiMay 11 2009 08:18 PM

There's no question that 2009 is shaping up to be a bad water year, the third dry or critical dry year in a row in California. But the numbers just don't add up for those who claim this is all because of the delta smelt: protecting delta smelt has allegedly cost the entire CVP 80,000 acre feet in 2009, according to recent court declarations by Westlands Water District, but Westlands' shortage is more than 1,000,000 acre feet this year. While the tiny fish makes a convenient scapegoat, the low allocation to Westlands and other contraactors is the result of three consecutive dry years and California's "first in time, first in right" water rights laws (Westlands' neighbors are getting either 90 or 100% of their supplies), not delta smelt.

The more important issue, in my view, is finding solutions that protect people and fish. Protecting the Delta environment doesn't just protect fish, migratory birds, and other wildlife, but it also protects thousands of jobs, including salmon fishermen (California's salmon fishery was shut down this year, costing a quarter billion dollars and thousands of jobs) and delta farmers (which support a multibillion dollar economy).

Droughts happen in California, and with climate change, they're likely to happen more frequently. The centerpiece of the solution to California's water woes is investing in the Virtual River of water conservation, water recycling, and groundwater recharge, from which we could generate more than 10 million acre feet of new water, more than has ever been exported from the Delta. California is starting to tap into this Virtual River; for instance, the Governor's draft water conservation plan (20x2020) would result in urban customers saving more than 1.7 million acre feet of water by 2020, new water recycling plants are being developed that could yield 500,000 acre feet of water for landscaping and industrial uses, and new groundwater banks are being planned in the Central Valley. For the Central Valley in particular, part of the solution is helping to diversify its water supplies, as the places in California that have diverse supply portfolios are best able to weather droughts like this one.

Ultimately, while none of us can make it rain, we can all be part of the solution by saving water. It's the cheapest, fastest, easist way to make new water for California. Blaming fish may be easy, but saving water is easier -- and far more productive.

K TurgeonMay 12 2009 03:55 AM

There is no question that California is experiencing a naturally occurring drought. Finding alternative solutions and implementing them, such as water conservation, water recycling, ground water recharges and banks, absolutely must happen. I can’t image why anyone would oppose these ideas.

Implementing the Governor’s draft water conservation plan will not happen over night. It will take time and money. In the long-term, these efforts will pay off. California will not reap the benefits any time soon. Regardless of whether or not California is experiencing a drought, water conservation should be in practice. And yes, a diverse supply portfolio will be a huge improvement over existing contingency plans.

But, none of these plans address the problem at hand. I haven’t heard anyone come up with a plausible win/win idea that can be implemented in the short-term to produce immediate results. Other than turning the pumps back on (it’s my understanding this will cause fish/wildlife to be harmed/killed) what else can be done to supply enough water for the demands of agriculture use?

Suggesting that we can conserve our way out of this crisis only addresses the long-term results, not the short-term and is intellectually dishonest also, side-steps the issue. We need solutions that can be implemented producing immediate results.

Lastly, no one in their right mind would blame a fish or any form of wildlife for this debacle. It’s certainly not the fault of any specie. The bottom line is this: concern for the welfare of fish/wildlife has super ceded the concern for people, ie. Farmers, Farm Workers, as well as the end result: shortage of food supply, food safety rising food prices and financially bankrupting an entire community dependent on the employment of Farmers & Farm Workers. Demonizing and accusing the Farmer/Growers of illegal use of water and belittling the Farm Worker in order to justify these actions only discredits good intentions and makes a bad situation worse. Not only are we experiencing a naturally occurring drought but a man-made drought, adding insult to injury

It all comes down to this: Animal Rights vs. Human Rights, where is the ACLU when you really need them?

Nicholas DeYoungMay 13 2009 10:32 AM

Here is the statement of one of your organizations representatives, Noah Garrison.

"If we allow the delta to become polluted or to lose — or for the help of that ecosystem to collapse, we lose the supply of water for 23 million people."

I would like to know how losing a species of fish will cause the supply of water to stop.

Your court actions have stopped water from being pumped into one of the most productive agricultural regions in the nation costing tens of thousands of jobs.

These are real people with real families.

I used to consider myself an environmentalist but no longer since kooks like you people with your extremism have taken over the movement and lost all sense of balance.

I despise your organization with my being. The real shame is that the actions of your organization will cause a backlash against all environmental concerns.

You people need a serious reality check. We are not going to be able to save every single species as human civilization progresses. The extiniction of species is a natural part of evolution. 99.5% of all life that has ever existed on this planet went extinct before our ancestors began walking upright.

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