Judge shoots down lawsuit that some claim would save Delta habitat, groundwater and fish
Smelt, considered to be canary in the coal mine for entire Sacramento River and Delta ecosystem, at the verge of extinction
The effort to stop sending river water from the Sacramento Delta down south took a hit this past week.
Now, a species of fish considered to be the canary in the coal mine for the entire Sacramento River and Delta ecosystem is at the verge of extinction, according to environmental groups that sued the federal government earlier this year to try and save the species and its environment.
Last week, a district court judge tossed out their lawsuit, which sought to immediately halt transfers of Sacramento River water to farms south of the Delta via two powerful water pumps near Tracy.
The plaintiffs that filed the suit, AquAlliance and the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, argued that stopping the pumping of water this summer was essential to protecting the endangered Delta smelt, now at its lowest population ever recorded. The lawsuit was also geared toward protecting much more than the finger-sized fish.
“This is a whole watershed issue, not just a Delta or a smelt issue,” said Barbara Vlamis, executive director of AquAlliance. “Delta smelt are in the most immediate danger here, but the impacts affect much more than that.”
Groundwater supplies, used for making the water transfers, are vulnerable to overuse. This, Vlamis says, could cost local farmers their well-water supplies and destroy salmon-spawning habitat in the Sacramento River system.
“And this is all so we can sell water to farmers in the desert who want to grow permanent crops,” Vlamis said.
Judge Lawrence O’Neill, of the federal district court in Fresno, denied the injunction on July 11, thereby allowing the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to continue supplying farms in the arid San Joaquin Valley with water from the drought-stressed Sacramento River.
The action will likely have negative effects for the chinook salmon, as well—a species of arguably more social and economic value than smelt.
John McManus, executive director of the Golden Gate Salmon Association, speculates that heavy pumping of river water during the summer into the San Joaquin Valley will reduce the capacity of Northern California’s reservoirs. As a result, river levels could be low and temperatures high during the critical fall spawning period, when the majority of California’s chinook salmon swim upstream to lay and fertilize eggs. Fertilized salmon eggs require cool water in order to properly develop.
Last fall, a similar situation occurred, when not enough water was available to keep the Sacramento River running at a healthy volume. Reservoir operators lowered the outflow from Shasta Dam. The river’s level dropped rapidly, and as many as 40 percent of salmon egg nests were dewatered and destroyed.
Judge O’Neill reportedly made his decision to continue summertime sales of Sacramento River water to farmers south of the Delta because of the argument from federal scientists, who claimed that because Delta smelt were not present in the Delta during the summer months, they would not be put at risk by the pumping.
But Bill Jennings, executive director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, says that the scientists’ claims are incorrect.
He says that more than 90 percent of the remaining Delta smelt are now likely present in the Delta, where incursion of saltwater and a rise in summertime temperatures is likely to result from the pumping. The U.S. Geological Survey recently reported a net inflow from the ocean into the Delta—the opposite of the historical norm of the river flowing to the sea. These conditions could prove fatal for every last smelt this summer, Jennings has warned.
The smelt was once among the most abundant species in the Delta ecosystem. Today, a fraction of the original population remains. This should be cause for alarm, environmentalists say, as the species serves as an indicator of the environmental stress that the Delta and its residents have faced for years—mainly due to excessive use of the river’s water for irrigation. As Delta smelt slip toward extinction, Jennings says, we can be sure other species are, too.
McManus questions the very notion of trading one resource for another.
“Does it make sense to be sending water from Northern California to the San Joaquin Valley so a handful of corporate farmers can grow almonds?” he said. “As a society, who wants this? Why are we doing this?”