Ever the scapegoat

Big Ag, politicians and mainstream media continuously—and erroneously—blame the delta smelt for farmers’ lack of water

The finger-sized delta smelt has been a propaganda tool for Big Ag interests for years.

The finger-sized delta smelt has been a propaganda tool for Big Ag interests for years.

In April, The Wall Street Journal published a news column that reduced the complicated story of California water, drought, fish and farmers into a simplified stream of vitriol directed at a tiny fish: the delta smelt. The author of the piece, columnist Allysia Finley, called the finger-sized endangered species “the cause célèbre of environmentalists and bête noire of parched farmers.” The delta smelt, Finley argued, is the cause of grief and pain for farmers in the San Joaquin Valley because laws protecting the fish have at times restricted the flow of water to orchards and fields.

Indeed, the delta smelt has become perhaps the No. 1 scapegoat during California’s historic drought—the favored whipping boy of the state’s powerful agricultural interests. Those interests have alleged repeatedly that environmental laws designed to save the smelt from extinction are putting San Joaquin Valley farmers out of business.

But Big Ag, along with mainstream and conservative news organizations and politicians, fail to mention a very inconvenient truth: During the drought, the smelt have had nothing to do with water cutbacks from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, the state’s primary source of freshwater. Rather, pumping restrictions in the delta during the past two years have instead served to protect the drinking water of millions of Californians and numerous farmers in the delta region itself. The pumping restrictions are keeping freshwater flowing through the delta so that salty ocean water cannot push too far inland and ruin water supplies. The restrictions also have been triggered by laws that protect a different fish altogether: salmon.

Although there have been times when smelt protections, first enforced in 2009, have required curtailing water for irrigation, such a scenario hasn’t happened in 27 months. Nonetheless, the delta smelt has remained a powerful propaganda tool for corporate farmers in the almond-and-pistachio country of the western San Joaquin Valley, a historically arid zone that now has much to gain by generating public sympathy for growers—and outrage against environmental laws that protect a little fish.

“It’s become almost comical how one species has been so targeted by the media and how the misinformation spreads,” said Steve Martarano of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He said the media has failed for years to tell the whole and accurate story about delta water management, fish and agriculture. And not all who vilify the smelt are ignorant or misled.

“They’re ignoring the truth to create a perception that the smelt is the root of their problems [in the San Joaquin Valley farming regions],” argued John McManus, executive director of the Golden Gate Salmon Association, a group that lobbies for conservation of Central Valley chinook salmon habitat. “They recognize that the delta smelt is a small unfamiliar species with basically no commercial value and very few friends. There aren’t jobs tied to delta smelt the way there are with salmon, which makes the delta smelt a much easier target. On the other side of salmon, there are workers, jobs, an industry.”

Moreover, even if environmental laws that limit water exports from the delta were eliminated, farmers could not pump every last drop of water from the estuary. That’s because freshwater must be allowed to flow downstream to keep saltwater from encroaching inland.

“When you hear people complain about water being lost to sea, very little of that water is actually delta smelt water,” said Peter Moyle, a fisheries biologist at UC Davis. “Most of it is water that is needed to maintain freshwater in the delta, and also to protect the pumps [that supply the San Joaquin Valley] themselves.”

The delta sits more or less at sea level, which means that saltwater from the ocean has the potential to move inland as far as gravity will allow (all the way past the delta at high tide)—if that physical space was not occupied by freshwater. Only the constant movement of freshwater down the Sacramento River and through the delta keeps the saltwater out. So, to protect irrigation pumps, managers of the state’s water supply constantly monitor river flows to make sure enough freshwater is moving through the delta and into San Pablo and San Francisco bays.

The delta smelt, once one of the most abundant fish species in the delta, is actually extremely valuable. “The delta smelt is by far the most sensitive fish in the [delta] system,” Moyle said. “It’s endemic to the estuary, doesn’t live anywhere else, and it requires a functioning estuary to exist. It is the one species that is affected the most by changes to the system.”

And the system clearly is changing. Since the 1970s, the delta smelt’s population has been dropping. Annual surveys conducted by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife used to find hundreds of the fish through a four-month period. A series of outings last fall, however, produced just a handful of individuals, and a dragnet survey in April landed just one smelt. Populations of several other native fish species, including chinook salmon, have also plunged.

Moyle said the long-term decline of fish numbers in the delta correlates strongly with a long-term increase in freshwater exports from the estuary. The delta’s major pumping stations kill salmon, smelt and other fish by crushing them against mesh fish screens.

Although farming interests have claimed that an unfair amount of water is being sacrificed to the environment and that farmers have lost their water allocations as a result, this doesn’t accurately characterize the past five decades. In the 1960s, after the delta pumps opened, water diversions from the estuary were about 1.5 million acre-feet a year. But by the early 2000s, water exports amounted to more than 6 million acre-feet in several record years. Six million acre-feet is about enough water to fill a hollowed out skyscraper that is 1,000 miles tall.

This massive diversion of freshwater from the ecosystem has mostly supported the growth of orchards in the San Joaquin Valley, where almond and other nut farmers are planting millions of trees each year—even in the midst of drought.

Nonetheless, the agriculture lobby continues to insist that water diversions to the arid San Joaquin Valley have not impacted fish populations. Instead, according to mainstream and conservative media and politicians, fish are stealing water from ailing farmers.

“If the delta smelt goes under, we have other fish that will be harder for them to argue are worthless,” Moyle said. “We have steelhead, sturgeon and salmon. Those kinds of fish people care much more about.”