A Victory for the Fish

In a move heralded as a huge victory by fishing and environmental groups, the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) today announced it will stop pumping at State Water Project (SWP) facilities in the Delta to provide “maximum protection” for Delta smelt, a species listed under the federal and state Endangered Species Acts.

DWR halted operation of the massive water export pumps this morning after Ryan Broddrick, director of the Department of Fish and Game (DFG), asked DWR to stop the pumps to prevent any further “take” of the threatened smelt. DFG made this request, which will be extended to other south Delta water diverters, after reductions from the State Water Project failed to prevent the salvage of smelt due to high tidal influences expected through June 3, according to a DFG press release.

“Recent surveys indicate that Delta smelt abundance is at an all time low,” said Broddrick. “These further extraordinary actions are necessary to protect Delta smelt that are currently extremely vulnerable to diversions in the south Delta.”

This action follows the observed entrainment of increasing numbers of juvenile smelt between May 25 and May 31 at the Harvey O. Banks pumping plant facility in the South Delta. The move occurs at a time when Delta smelt have declined to record lows, as evidenced by a recent DFG survey that found only 25 juvenile smelt throughout the entire Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

“Drastic times call for drastic measures,” said DWR Director Lester Snow. “While there are clearly many factors at play in the current decline of smelt in the Delta, we must act on the one that is within our control.”

“DWR saw the handwriting on the wall,” stated Bill Jennings, chairman of the Watershed Enforcers, a project of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance. “Given the massacre of Delta smelt and other species that is taking place at the pumps, the state knew we would file a request with Alameda County Superior Court Frank Roesch to take emergency action to save the fish.”

The judge in March ordered DWR to get a “take permit” for the smelt, spring run chinook and winter run chinook salmon that it kills in the massive state water export facilities, but the state appealed the decision.

The state apparently took preemptive action, realizing that the “body count” of smelt was 168 smelt at the state facilities and 216 at the federal pumps by Wednesday, a total of 384 fish, according to Jennings.

The Delta Smelt Working Group, a group of federal and state biologists, recently warned that the “species has become critically imperiled and an emergency response is warranted.” They recommended that reverse flows in the South Delta caused by excessive water exports be eliminated as soon as possible to protect the remaining smelt at a critical time in their life history.

The State Water Project supplies water to 25 million Californians and 750,000 acres of farmland. Some water deliveries will be made to South San Francisco Bay users from water supplies already in the aqueduct.

“Our actions to save the smelt will place a real hardship on some water users in the Bay Area, Central Valley and Southern California,” said Snow. “However, given the concerns about the Delta smelt, this is a prudent action at this time.”

Snow challenged other public agencies with jurisdiction over activities affecting Delta smelt, including the federal government, to take “aggressive actions” to protect the species.

“Scientific studies indicate that pelagic fish are affected by many stressors. Water project operations can affect fish. However, invasive species, toxics, and diversion by many other water users in the south Delta have dramatic effects on these fish,” DWR stated.

In early 2005, state and federal scientists working on the Interagency Ecological Program (IEP) first identified the decline in four once abundant pelagic fish species ­ Delta smelt, longfin smelt, threadfin shad and juvenile striped bass.

Since then, state and federal scientists have conducted extensive studies to determine the causes for the decline in pelagic fish productivity in the Bay/Delta Estuary. The scientists originally pinpointed changes in water exports, toxic chemicals and invasive species as the three most likely causes of the pelagic organism decline (POD).

More recently, both agency and independent scientists, although considering the toxics and invasive species to still be factors, have concluded that increases and changes in state and federal water export operations to be the key factor in the collapse of Delta smelt and other species. Water exports have increased dramatically ­ by an average of 1,000,000 acre-feet of water each year since 2002.

Today’s action occurs within the context of a series of recommendations issued by the POD Team in March that emphasize the need for reduced Delta exports and other actions to save Delta smelt, longfin smelt, threadfin shad, juvenile striped bass and other species.

Although environmental justice advocates are encouraged by today’s action, Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, Campaign Director of Restore the Delta, questioned why this action occurred only when the smelt were on the verge of extinction.

“Is this action too little too late for the Delta smelt?” she asked. “Did the Department of Water Resources continue sitting idle over the last four years when earlier actions could have kept the Delta from reaching this point of crisis?”

Parrilla and other Delta advocates are also asking whether the federal government will respond with similar actions to protect the Delta smelt and other imperiled species.

Federal Judge Oliver Wanger ruled on May 26 that a controversial government assessment of the risk to delta smelt from the state and federal pumps is illegal and must be rewritten. It is expected that environmental and fishing groups will go back to federal court to obtain an emergency order forcing the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to also cease its pumping operations to protect delta smelt.

“The smelt is the Delta’s canary in the coal mine,” said Jennings. “It was historically one of the most abundant, if not the most abundant Delta species. Now it is on the precipice of extinction and has been reduced to a level where you can name each one that is left.”

The Delta smelt is an indicator species of the health of the ecosystem. If the Delta smelt becomes extinct, splittail, longfin smelt, spring run chinook, winter run chinook and other species are expected to follow. Hopefully, the federal government will quickly follow the state in ceasing operation of its Delta water export facilities.

DAN BACHER can be reached at: danielbacher@hotmail.com



Dan Bacher is an environmental journalist in Sacramento. He can be reached at: Dan Bacher danielbacher@fishsniffer.com.