ENDANGERED SPECIES:

Calif. water agency changes course on delta smelt

SAN FRANCISCO -- A fragile truce in a long battle over an endangered fish took a hit last week as California water regulators urged the federal government to reconsider protections for the delta smelt.

Lester Snow, director of the California Department of Water Resources, is questioning whether increasing freshwater flows in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to protect the tiny fish is worth the effort -- a reversal of the department's position.

Citing "new information," Snow told the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that a federal biological opinion in place since December may be overstating threats to the smelt. The opinion ordered pumping restrictions throughout California's State Water Project in wet years to ensure water flows for the smelt during the fall spawning season.

Unpublished research conducted by Snow's department, in concert with the California Department of Fish and Game, has revealed the existence of a separate delta smelt population in an area that is not affected by state water operations, Snow said. The population in question is thriving in a tidal marsh around Liberty Island in the northern delta.

"This population suggests that delta smelt are less susceptible to a catastrophic event than previously thought," Snow wrote in the letter to Ren Lohoefener, FWS's regional director in Sacramento.

Snow urged FWS to revisit water-storage restrictions at Oroville Dam, a crucial source of water, especially to farmers in the fertile San Joaquin Valley. The biological opinion in question would make the DWR release cold water in wet years to aid the smelt as it spawns.

Environmentalists were enraged at the apparent about-face and criticized Snow for what they see as political expedience. They said the Liberty Island smelt population is not new and likely does not indicate an improvement in the species' welfare.

Tina Swanson, executive director of the Bay Institute, added that the biological opinion was based largely on scientific data collected by DWR researchers. She called Snow's petition "a peculiar attempt" to distance DWR from its own science, which indicates cold flows are needed to restore the smelt.

In Swanson's view, the only logical explanation is that Snow wants to build support for construction of a peripheral canal around the delta to ensure water supplies are delivered to the south. The idea has been floated by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) as a possible solution to the region's many water conflicts.

"It's almost certainly political, because in fact it's not credible in terms of the science," Swanson said of the letter. "There's no scientific basis for saying, 'Look at this again.' It's just not there."

The letter also comes as the National Marine Fisheries Service prepares to release a separate, related biological opinion on chinook salmon next month. Having to release more cold water for the smelt, Snow wrote, would mean "negative effects on spring-run chinook salmon and green sturgeon."

'Part of a larger dance'

Swanson dismissed Snow's claim about salmon and sturgeon and said his letter could undermine a tentative alliance among water users, state agencies and environmental groups looking for a long-term solution under the Bay Delta Conservation Plan process. She said the Bay Institute, the Natural Resources Defense Council and even some water agencies had discouraged the department from seeking reconsultation about the biological opinion, to no avail.

"This is part of a larger dance," Swanson said. "It really damages the ability of the other partners and stakeholders who are trying to work together."

Yet Snow insists the smelt, which is seen as an indicator of ecosystem health, has been affected by more than just State Water Project operations. He thinks the biological opinion unfairly targets water supplies over other stressors, including urban wastewater discharge, pesticides, harvest practices and food-chain issues.

The state, he said, "is bearing a disproportionate regulatory burden through water supply impacts."

Historically, a federal agency -- in this case, the Bureau of Reclamation -- has to request a revision to the biological opinion. Snow maintains the state has the right to file a petition because of a "triggering event" -- the Liberty Island research. Swanson countered that the research has not been published and that Reclamation simply was not interested in petitioning for a revision.

FWS officials said they are reviewing Snow's letter and are not yet prepared to comment. The department is currently reviewing whether to raise the delta smelt's status from threatened to endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

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