When Justice Delayed Means Extinction: the Case of the Delta Smelt

Delta Smelt. Photo: US Fish and Wildlife Service.

The signature event of the 2019 California Water Year is the arrival of extinction for the Delta smelt, a two-inch, nearly transparent fish at the bottom of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta food chain. The smelt’s demise signals critical dangers for two species of Coho salmon, one species of Steelhead and resident killer whales that feed on them.

But the event is a cause for celebration among users of Delta water and their financial, political and media supporters, who will be happy when the smelt is extirpated off the Endangered Species, banished from sight forevermore.

The only way the Delta smelt stands any chance is with a hatchery program and we don’t think the government will spend what will be required to restore a survivable community of a fish whose right to live at all has been denounced and denied for years by some of the most powerful economic and political forces in the state and nation – from the California Water Coalition to the president.

The glaring light of extinction of the Delta smelt reveals decades of treachery and deceit by corporate agribusiness, metropolitan water districts, politicians and their collaborators in the resource agencies charged by law to protect wildlife species from extinction. The moral squalor that has permitted this crisis is contemptible. There never was any point in environmental activists trying to negotiate with these special interests and the government staff who obey them. The compromises made in those offices are between economic interests and the reputations of state and national environmental groups, not primarily about the species at all.

Lawsuits resulting in the settlements that have enabled this extinction are just another part of the sordid “deal.”

The Delta smelt was extirpated by federal and state government, the very entities that for decades have been in charge of “fixing” the Delta around the balanced aims of providing fresh water for agriculture, drinking water and environmental protection for fish and wildlife.

It’s not hard to imagine that there is a great whirlpool in the Delta just downstream from the state and federal pumps drawing water into southbound canals headed for agribusiness and Los Angeles. It is pointless and unkind to name individuals among the flotsam and jetsam disappearing down the vortex of this whirlpool of extinction, but one notices types; irrigation districts, farm-commodity groups, media, local, state and federal elected officials, political appointees and staff of state and federal resource agencies, ironic university scientists – almost everyone who was anyone in California environmental politics has had a hand in the Delta “fix” in the last 25 years. The little fish at the bottom of it all just slipped between their self-important fingers.

But, after all, the smelt never really achieved the level of an actual commodity.

The extinction of a species is an accusation against the pretense of decency that props up the entire hypocritical society composed of all these special interests but rife with laws protecting wildlife that it only selectively honors and enforces. The eagle is safe for the moment; but a two-inch, transparent smelt that can’t make it in polluted, salty water?

Only 11 listed species have gone extinct since the Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973. More than 80 percent of the people support the act, but their political will has been severely damaged by the Citizens United decision, providing unlimited, anonymous money to political campaigns.

Today, attorney generals of a number of states including California are fighting the continued weakening of the ESA under the Trump administration, led by David Bernhardt, former top lobbyist for Westlands Water District, largest consumer of federal water in the state.

Efforts continue in California as elsewhere to fight the plutocracy, united it its hysterical hatred of environmental law and regulation. So, we won’t name the individuals behind the deal that reduced the amount of Colorado River water coming here, which created the additional demand on Delta water that has brought such damage.

A curious recent event put this squalor in perspective, something the extraordinarily voluminous reports of committees past and present fail to do. It is especially curious because it was a powerful action taken by the former chair of the state Water Resources Quality Control Board, Felicia Marcus, in the waning days of the last Jerry Brown gubernatorial administration. I would like to think that the failure to find any Delta smelt in a routine survey persuaded Marcus to propose and get board approval for an order to leave 40-percent of the natural flow of the three largest tributaries to the San Joaquin River in the river, flowing to the Delta in winter and spring. Environmentalists said it wasn’t enough to dilute the pollution and salt in the Delta but it was a good start.

We have faced Marcus through several of her high-level appointments. As the western-states administrator for the EPA during the UC Merced siting and environmental approval process, we found her decisions less than “environmental.” She was a puppet for San Joaquin Valley congressmen and the developers, banks and landowners behind them who saw UC Merced as the biggest magnet for growth since the invention of asphalt.

But here Marcus was, acknowledging the crisis to aquatic life in the Delta and ordering a good start at a solution — more clean water. Frankly, we believed that she either knew she would be fired by the new governor or else she was having health problems. These are the two situations that can cause come-to-Jesus moments among those with power over endangered species.

The mission statement for the state water board might have offered some guidance if any member of that board ever consulted it:

“To preserve, enhance, and restore the quality of California’s water resources and drinking water for the protection of the environment, public health, and all beneficial uses, and to ensure proper water resource allocation and efficient use, for the benefit of present and future generations.”

It’s “for the benefit of the whole present and future generations,” and “for the protection of the environment” (which would include the environment for fish), not for the will of the governor and his special interest cronies.

It says nothing about allowing species to go extinct. The mission is “To preserve, enhance, and restore the quality of California’s water resources …” and there is no more important water resource in this state than the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. The whole intent of the mission statement is toward improvement — granting the complexity of water management — an intent to redeem the whole after generations of exploitation, not to kiss the ass of whoever sits in the governor’s office.

Marcus ordered more water remain in three tributary rivers: the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced. The irrigation districts that draw from these rivers are the South San Joaquin, the Oakdale, Modesto, Turlock and Merced, along with the City and County of San Francisco.

The lesser McClatchy Co. outlets servicing this area squeaked riot and let slip hairless Chihuahuas of water war.

Then we found the meaning of this grand civilization based on irrigated agriculture, claiming to “feed the world” (all the almonds, powdered milk, commodity cheese, wine grapes, radicchio, asparagus, melons, pistachios and marijuana it can ingest). This festering feudal agribusiness culture that has replaced American agriculture is a long way from the democratic unity of small to middling farmers that created those irrigation districts. Encrusted with subsidies, exemptions to tariffs and high-priced crop insurance protecting the incomes of the largest, richest agribusiness, this export-led industry has been well protected from harm. Between Washington DC and California agribusiness, the corrupt lead the corrupt down the path of destruction of natural resources, incidentally creating a region the Congressional Research Service described in 2005 (at the height of the real estate boom) as having a lower per capita income than Appalachia.

Marcus was not given a new term by the new governor, Glamourous Gavin of Frisco. He replaced her by one of the weakest members on the board, a man with a bachelor’s degree in English, neither a lawyer, a biologist nor a hydrology engineer yet a major leader in decisions regarding the largest, most severely polluted estuary on the west coast of the Pacific Ocean. He was chosen to be the governor’s own water creature. The creature of agribusiness on the board is Vice Chair Dorene “Dee Dee” d’Adamo, wife of Berj Moosekian of the melon Moosekians of Turlock. She is the voice of agriculture, not the voice:

“To preserve, enhance, and restore the quality of California’s water resources and drinking water for the protection of the environment, public health, and all beneficial uses …

D’Adamo’s consistent aim through a long career of public advocacy has been the protection, enhancement and increase of irrigated agribusiness in the San Joaquin Valley, with particular attention to melons, without which human life would once again be nasty, brutish and short, according to the melon people. Others whisper that before Iceberg lettuce and Radicchio arrived on the American salad dish, the nation was only a few red cells away from scurvy. Without almonds, the Mother Goose of nuts, we would all be so stupid that the nation would lose our technological edge. Humanity, of course, cannot live without subsidized cotton. Milo Minderbender long ago stepped off the pages of Catch-22 into a position of influence in the US Department of Agriculture. He doesn’t cover cotton with chocolate anymore; he uses taxpayer funds – in the words of a Fresno cotton merchant, “to support and maintain a viable American cotton industry,”– from subsidized water to subsidized prices and crop insurance to subsidized shipping to Asian textile mills.

And, of course, California must be worshipped for turning so much water into wine.

The subject of how much American taxpayers are ripped off by the yeoman agribusiness corporations, domestic and transnational, in league with the USDA, is admirably covered by the Environmental Working Group on its excellent Farm Subsidy Data Base, which has been tabulating farm subsidies since 1995, with particular attention in recent years to the highly subsidized crop insurance programs that make so much money for finance, insurance and real estate (agribusiness) special interests in this nation.

But, all of this corrupt effort to get more water to agriculture so that agribusiness can continue to grow is brought to naught by salts, advancing steadily across the entire region of Central California irrigated agriculture in the coastal valleys and the Central Valley. And what salt isn’t pushing in from the sea or washing down along with heavy metals from the Coast Range into the former alkali flats onto the recently flourishing orchards of the west side of the San Joaquin, is coming south from the Delta as sea water relentlessly pushes farther upstream. The less fresh water that is available in the Delta, the farther the salt water intrudes. This is damaging farming on the superb Delta soils with their high peat content to deliver water to the politically potent alkali flats of the west side of the San Joaquin Valley.

The Center for Investigative Reporting did an interesting video called Salt in the Fields in 2012, featuring Berj Moosekian, d’Adamo’s husband, demonstrating just how inedible a cantaloupe irrigated with salty water is. Not exactly an argument against adding more water to the Delta but California water wars reach a level of total incoherence beyond the early mile markers of logic.

To return to the state water board soap opera, the urge to keep 40-percent of the natural flow in the three tributaries in winter and spring, didn’t outlast Marcus’s term, even though she had a majority behind her. The board has gone back to sleep and sweet dreams replace the unpleasant duties described in its mission statement. Conflict would muss the governor’s pompadour.

Several days ago, the US Fish & Wildlife Service issued a group of biological opinions that permitted more, not less pumping of Delta water to the south.

The mission statement of the Service is:

The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people.

But David Bernhardt is the Secretary of the Department of Interior, which oversees the Service. Extending his work in the private sector, Bernhardt directs the Service to facilitate the delivery of as much water to Westlands from the Delta as it can and hopes the administration can stack the courts before the lawsuits come to trial.

Last week the state water board approved a plan to allow farmers 35 years (with 10-year extensions on request) to stop their farms from discharging runoff full of nitrates and salts.

Courthouse News reported:

“Water board vice chair Dorene D’Adamo argued the board shouldn’t be setting a timeline without knowing whether it is achievable. She added that she was worried the plan could be another burdensome regulation for California farmers, who are currently planning for the upcoming launch of a landmark groundwater-monitoring law.” – Cahill, Courthouse News, Oct. 16, 2019.

And this is how farmworkers who live near those farms get sick and their children don’t grow right or do so well in school.

And corporate agribusiness and its corrupted dependents will go on and on in a mad, destructive gyre, sucking species after species into the vortex of extinction.

Bill Hatch lives in the Central Valley in California. He is a member of the Revolutionary Poets Brigade of San Francisco. He can be reached at: billhatch@hotmail.com.