Legal suit alleges mismanagement of Delta water delivery, negative environmental impacts

California Sportfishing Protection Alliance and others say fish, ecosystem adversely effected

For water-thirsty farmers and municipalities in the San Joaquin Valley, the Delta smelt is an easy victim to blame.

For years, right-wing media pundits and water-district spokespeople have expressed outrage that farmers must, at times, sacrifice their irrigation privileges to protect the finger-sized fish, a resident of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

The Delta smelt is an endangered species just barely clinging to existence in a habitat that has deteriorated badly in the past four decades, largely, scientists say, because of increasing volumes of water getting pumped into the San Joaquin Valley for agricultural use.

But a lawsuit filed earlier this month aimed at stopping overuse of river water for farming is not focused on saving the Delta smelt. It is an effort to save the entire ecosystem, including chinook salmon, striped bass and sturgeon.

“The Delta smelt is just an indicator species for what is happening to all the species in this estuary,” said Bill Jennings, executive director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, one of two plaintiffs in the lawsuit. “Whether you’re talking about striped bass or sturgeon or splittail or Delta smelt, they’re all down to historic low numbers.”

The lawsuit, filed June 10, in federal district court, alleges that the Bureau of Reclamation has failed to adequately assess the environmental impacts of delivering water from the Delta to farms in the San Joaquin Valley, where irrigation canals transport millions of acre-feet of Sacramento River water every year.

Barbara Vlamis of AquAlliance, the other plaintiff in the suit, said the huge demand for water in the orchards and vineyards south of Stockton does not just impact the Sacramento Valley, but also has indirect effects on Northern California groundwater supplies. That’s because farmers who sell their own river water allotments to buyers in the San Joaquin Valley, which lacks its own reliable source, frequently continue watering their fields using groundwater pumped to the surface via wells. This process, called groundwater transferring, has serious environmental consequences.

“When you overpump a groundwater basin, you lower your surface waters,” Vlamis explained. That means tributary creeks may vanish, and the overall flow of the Sacramento River will decline.

This summer, the Bureau of Reclamation plans to sell more than 175,000 acre-feet of water to an agricultural district in the San Joaquin Valley, according to the lawsuit. Two-thirds of this volume could be met via groundwater transfers.

Vlamis said that the bureau failed to undertake an environmental-impact review of its water-use plans and instead, took a less-costly, less-time-consuming route by declaring its actions to have no significant impacts on the environment—a conclusion the plaintiffs allege “was arbitrary and capricious.” The plaintiffs’ objective is to force a closer look at the impacts caused by chronic exporting of water from north to south and limit the volume to a sustainable amount.

The Bureau of Reclamation would not offer comment while the case is underway. The case will be heard by a judge in July.

Jennings said the Sacramento Delta ecosystem can probably sustain an annual diversion rate of about 3 million acre-feet. Normally, between 4 million and 6 million acre-feet of water are pumped from the Delta, and environmentalists worry that the Delta’s fisheries are on a path toward inevitable collapse unless water-use patterns change.

The lawsuit from AquAlliance and the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance is likely to arouse scorn against the Delta smelt. But Steve Martarano, a public-affairs specialist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, says criticism of the smelt amounts to a failure to look at the bigger ecological picture.

“These people don’t mention salmon, because the Delta smelt is an easy victim, whereas people care about salmon,” he said. “The Delta smelt was once one of the most abundant species in the Delta, and we like to say that if you could figure out how to bring the smelt back, you could figure out how to save the entire Delta.”