Delta showdown

State seeks reversal of federal decision protecting Delta smelt

Sacramento Delta water heading south via the California Aqueduct. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, flows from federal facilities have only been reduced 2 percent to protect the threatened Delta smelt.

Sacramento Delta water heading south via the California Aqueduct. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, flows from federal facilities have only been reduced 2 percent to protect the threatened Delta smelt.

department of water resources PHOTO courtesy of

A recent petition by the Schwarzenegger administration to relax federal rules protecting Delta smelt is shaping up to be a key test of whether the Obama administration will stand firm in the implementation of a court-ordered biological opinion aiming to restore the fish.

The smelt is a small, slender-bodied fish, with a typical adult size of 2-3 inches, found only in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Scientists regard the fish as an “indicator species” that demonstrates the health of the ecosystem. The smelt has plummeted to record low population levels in the past several years. Last December, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ordered restrictions on Delta water export pumping during wet years to protect the tiny fish during the fall spawning season.

The state of California wants to undo all that.

On May 7, Lester Snow, director of the California Department of Water Resources, formally requested the Fish and Wildlife Service to “reinitiate consultation” with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation regarding state and federal water project pumping operations on the California Delta. The massive pumps have exported record amounts of water out of the estuary in recent years.

Snow, in a letter to the service, contended that freshwater flows to protect the smelt may not be necessary in the light of the recent discovery of a Delta smelt population at Liberty Island in Yolo County that is “unaffected” by the California State Water Project and Central Valley Project operations.

“There is new information that shows there are better ways to protect Delta smelt that also better protect water supply,” said Snow. “The current biological opinion contains conditions which have a high degree of scientific uncertainty for the level of protection they provide, but these conditions have significant water-supply impacts for California.”

Snow also claimed the State Water Project operations are just one factor among many in the decline of the smelt. “The impact of the SWP as one factor influencing the Delta cannot be assessed without assessing the relative impact of other stressors: radical changes in species operations and food-chain relationships, urban wastewater discharges, pesticide discharges and harvest practices,” said Snow.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has not responded to Snow yet. “We’re developing a response in coordination with the Bureau of Reclamation,” said Steve Martarano, FWS spokesman.

However, Martarano pointed out that actions taken to protect the smelt because of last December’s biological opinion have impacted less than 2 percent of the water delivered through the federal project pumps. He also said that he didn’t anticipate any fall actions under the opinion this year because they are taken only in “wetter than normal” years.

The service is currently reviewing whether to upgrade the Delta smelt’s listing from “threatened” to “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act because of the fish’s alarming recent decline.

Representatives of environmental and fishing groups were outraged over the Schwarzenegger administration’s attempt to weaken protections for Delta smelt in light of the continuing collapse of Delta smelt, longfin smelt, Central Valley chinook salmon, Sacramento splittail, green sturgeon and other fish populations of the Bay-Delta estuary.

“The Delta smelt has been found to be at its lowest ever population levels in recent years, so the fish is clearly in jeopardy,” said George Torgun, Earthjustice attorney. “We stand by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s biological opinion and do not see sufficient evidence provided by DWR to change the opinion’s standards.”

Bill Jennings, chairman of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, called Snow’s petition a “stab in the back.”

“If the state professes that it’s committed to protecting the Delta through the Bay Delta [Conservation] Plan and Delta Vision processes, then why is it seeking the reversal of the opinion protecting Delta smelt?” asked Jennings. “Snow’s letter resolves the issue of whether DWR and the governor give a tinker’s damn about the health of the Delta, but it’s not surprising, since the state has historically failed to comply with requirements of the state and federal Endangered Species acts.”