Meet the tiny fish at the heart of Calif.'s latest water battles

The delta smelt has an unfortunate name; it's easy to say with a sneer. The fish is also quite puny -- 2 to 3 inches, on average -- and physically weak. It can't swim very well.

All these traits make a creature easy to pick on. So it's no surprise that people have seized on the smelt as the unwelcome party in California's latest drought.

"They want to protect this fish right here called the delta smelt," Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) said on the House floor in February, pointing to a poster of the fish. "This is what this is about. It is about the Endangered Species Act. It is about the biggest water grab in history and running people out of water to protect this little fish."

The semitransparent delta smelt has a life span of one year. Swimming using a "stroke-glide" style that takes advantage of the tides, the fish inhabits the zone where the salty waters of the Pacific mix with the fresh water of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the largest such estuary on the West Coast. Before the 1980s, it was often abundant in the delta -- the only place in the world where this particular species lives.

Now, farmers and their congressional representatives invoke its name as a touchstone for where one stands in the state's endless dispute over water. To support the smelt, they argue, is to support government interference in century-old water rights and to question the primacy of the massive dams, reservoirs and canals that have helped turn California into a national breadbasket.

"For years, San Joaquin Valley farmers have been fighting against federal regulations and environmental lawsuits that have diverted water supplies in order to help a 3-inch fish," said Natural Resources Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) in February, advocating on the House floor for a bill that would overturn environmental protections for endangered fish in the delta. In 2009, he said, hundreds of billions of gallons were taken from farmers, causing 40 percent unemployment in some areas.

"We have seen farmers ... who normally help feed the nation being sent to wait in line at food banks and, in some cases, being served carrots that are normally grown in this area that are from China," he said.

On the other hand, Democrats and environmentalists argue that the smelt is being used as a scapegoat to justify upending environmental protections and taking more water from the delta, pre-empting state water policies that have been hammered out over decades.

"You would have to have the brain of a 3-inch fish to believe that narrative," Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) said in the same debate. "Some people are cynically trying to capitalize on the worst drought in California history in order to steal water from some parts of the state and from other water users and give it to a few."

Even national figures like Sarah Palin and Sean Hannity know about the delta smelt because it's at the center of the long-simmering controversy over water use. California's water flows through a system of reservoirs, canals and pumps that were put in place 50 years ago to deliver reliable supplies to farmers. But environmental rules require water for the smelt, as well, whose population began declining in the 1970s.

Now there's a drought, and the declining water levels are exposing sensitive fault lines between people and fish in California. Farmers facing water cutoffs are blaming protections for fish that require water to flow out to the Pacific Ocean, rather than get pumped south through the delta. The bill that passed the House in February, H.R. 3964, would amend laws that protect the smelt and other fish, including the Central Valley Project Improvement Act, which reserves 800,000 acre-feet (about 260 billion gallons) of water per year for fish, wildlife and habitat restoration.

But the smelt is more than an unusually small fish. It's an "indicator species" for the overall health of the delta, and it's sounding a clear alarm. The smelt is the canary in the coal mine for a host of problems that could eventually affect drinking water and irrigation supplies.

Pumping fresh water out of the delta, as the massive Central Valley Project and State Water Project were engineered to do, allows salt water from the bay to move farther upstream, which also moves the smelt's habitat upstream and closer to the pumps. Dams that trap sediment upstream mean that downstream channels are eroding without being replenished, and smelt are more vulnerable to predators without the cloudy, turbid water they prefer to inhabit.


At the same time, reduced water turbidity slows the processing of nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus, which could raise the cost of treating wastewater that flows into the delta, environmentalists say. And water withdrawals combined with fertilizer runoff can result in toxic algal blooms, disrupting the food web and contaminating drinking water supplies.

Because the smelt is so weak and small, and has such a narrow existence, it reflects conditions in the delta more quickly than other fish, like the chinook salmon, which spends several years at sea and returns to the delta only to spawn and die. (Longer-lived fish at the top of the food chain, like green sturgeon, are better measures of some stressors, like selenium, mercury and other toxic chemicals.)

"It reflects an estuary in decline, and it happens to be in the hot seat because it's the most sensitive species in the system, with a one-year life cycle, and also because it's a listed species," said Peter Moyle, associate director of the Center for Watershed Science at the University of California, Davis, who has been studying the smelt since the 1970s. "There are other species that are also in decline, but just don't have that same cachet."

He added, "The delta smelt is just first in the queue of fishes sensitive to delta conditions, with longfin smelt, four runs of chinook salmon, and green sturgeon right behind."

There are numerous reasons for the smelt's decline. The Fish and Wildlife Service listed the water diversions, competition with other species, and increases in salinity and water clarity as primary reasons, but noted that the agency was "unable to determine with certainty which threats or combinations of threats are directly responsible for the decrease in delta smelt abundance." Lesser factors include power plants' cooling intake pumps that suck in fish and predators like striped and largemouth bass.

Delta residents, environmentalists and fishermen who have banded together to advocate for the smelt blame the pumping in particular, which has taken more than a trillion gallons of water out of the delta each year, on average, since the state and federal water projects were completed in the 1970s. The smelt's numbers -- as well as those of the winter-run chinook salmon and steelhead trout -- began plummeting soon after, and have not recovered since.

Starting in 1993 and continuing amid much legal wrangling to this day, federal and state agencies have placed limits on how much water can be pumped out of the delta, and when the pumps can operate, so as not to suck the fish toward probable death at the turbines. There are now limits on the number of smelt that can be killed each year, set to reflect their estimated population. This year's number for delta smelt is 155, reflecting surveys last year that showed the second-lowest abundance ever measured.

This year, Fish and Wildlife Service officials have been performing surveys at spots on the San Joaquin and Sacramento rivers to see if smelt are moving toward the pumps. If they are, the agency will have the option of taking measures under the Endangered Species Act to ensure their safety, including curtailing pumping if needed.

"That's sort of a freeway area where they are," said Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Steve Martarano. If it rains, water will rush into the rivers, sending the fish 30 miles downstream to the pumps near Tracy, Calif., where they get sucked in and die. "Boom, they could take off and be there in a few days," he said.

Farmers say the smelt's continued decline is evidence that the pumping restrictions aren't working, but environmentalists say it's the least that can be done to save the fish from extinction. The pumping restrictions for smelt, contained in a biological opinion, were upheld last month by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, a ruling that Nunes called "obnoxious."

"Like the biological opinion protecting salmon and steelhead, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's biological opinion was not designed to restore delta smelt -- it was designed to do the minimum necessary to avoid driving delta smelt to extinction," said Doug Obegi, a water attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Thus far, it has succeeded, despite repeated attempts by water users to prevent implementing these protections through litigation and political pressure."

Other species declining, too

The smelt is not the only species that has been disparaged in bitter water disputes across the country. The Tennessee Valley Authority ran into the paper-clip-sized snail darter soon after the passage of the 1973 Endangered Species Act when it sought to construct a dam on the Little Tennessee River. The dam eventually got an exemption from the ESA, but the Supreme Court's decision in 1978 found that TVA had to stop construction even though the dam was nearly complete.

In California, the chinook salmon, which is also federally protected in the delta, has escaped similar rhetorical attacks, despite being responsible for curtailed water deliveries. It's almost impossible to tell how much water is being reserved for a specific species, as the protections for each can be applied or removed on a weekly basis, and state water quality regulations can also overlap.

It's the smelt, which has no commercial value, that has attracted the vitriol of Republican lawmakers and talking heads over the years since its addition to the endangered species list in 1993. (In 2010, the federal government decided that amplifying its status from threatened to endangered was warranted, but placed it on the waiting list instead.)

Even now, in the throes of drought, FWS hasn't ordered that any pumping be curtailed to protect the smelt. There simply hasn't been enough water in the rivers to push the smelt toward the pumps, so scientists are just monitoring the situation closely in case the smelt start moving. Pumping restrictions have been put in place to protect the salmon, however, by the National Marine Fisheries Service, which oversees species that spend time in the ocean.

Another species that officials are monitoring is longfin smelt, another tiny fish (3.5 to 4.3 inches) that FWS found to be worth listing in 2012. After three petitions by environmentalists since 1992, FWS decided that the San Francisco Bay Delta population was indeed a distinct segment, threatened by the decline in flows through the delta to the ocean, invasive species and possibly ammonium from wastewater treatment plants. It's listed under the state Endangered Species Act, but it's on a waiting list for federal protection, which could take years (Greenwire, March 30, 2012).

If it were added to the list, water contractors would get even further up in arms, UC Davis' Moyle said. Measures to protect it would overlap with those for the delta smelt and the salmon, he said, but noted, "Obviously, the water interests would go after any species that would cause the Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Marine Fisheries Service to cut back the pumping."

Another fish that lives only in the delta, the Sacramento splittail, is currently listed as a "species of special concern" on the state level, but the federal government moved from listing it as threatened in 1999 to taking it off the list in 2003, based on better surveying techniques that found it has fallen from historic levels but is not currently in decline.

"I could see it being listed again if present trends in delta conditions continue, along with other native fishes," Moyle said.

Farmers push back

Denis Prosperi, a member of the group Families Protecting the Valley who owns 720 acres of almonds and grapes in the San Joaquin Valley, has had his water supplies from the Central Valley Project cut to zero this year. He's planning to turn to groundwater pumping, which can cause land subsidence.

"The smelt, the little 3-inch baitfish in the delta, is harmed by the pumps, so they don't turn the pumps on," he said. "They restricted the pumps in the last month, [there was] 50,000 acre-feet going into the ocean."

Prosperi pointed out that before the dams, reservoirs and pumps were installed in the delta, the state was fully open to the vicissitudes of its naturally variable hydrology, unable to stanch flooding during wet years or store water for dry years.

"The environmental movement wants to go back to nature, but they don't really want to go back to nature," he said. "They want consistent flows all the time; they want to control the flows, want nature to be like this, that's utopia. As long as the water comes out of the faucet, they can all be environmentalists."

Farmers also point to wastewater discharges from delta cities like Stockton and Sacramento. They say water managers are downplaying the role of wastewater, which contains ammonia, nitrates and pharmaceuticals, in favor of reducing water pumping to users south of the delta.

In May 2007, a batch of dead salmon showed up in the delta. "The environmentalists, the media and government wildlife agencies immediately blamed the water export pumps," said Russ Waymire, a former farmer and Families Protecting the Valley member who has put signs along Central Valley highways reading "Congress created dust bowl." "Polluted sewage water is killing fish and the delta ecosystem, and they get away with blaming others?"

The state has ordered a Sacramento wastewater treatment plant to reduce its ammonia discharges into the Sacramento River over the next seven years, and officials are also considering lowering ammonia limits from another delta wastewater plant.

They maintain that the ammonia is not causing direct harm to smelt and other fish, but rather could be affecting the growth of algae and tiny crustaceans that are part of the fishes' food chain.

"It is not clear how much, if any, this impact from ammonia is actually contributing to the delta ecosystem issues," said Ken Landau, assistant executive officer for the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board. "Municipal wastewater treatment plants in the delta have spent hundreds of millions of dollars over the past couple of decades to eliminate toxicity, dissolved oxygen and other potential impacts on aquatic life."

The smelt and other endangered fish are moving closer again to the cross hairs as the drought continues. Though the House bill is not expected to advance in the Senate, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) is pushing to fast-track a bill that would have the Fish and Wildlife Service study the effects of keeping floodgates in the Sacramento River open as long as possible to allow river water to be pumped south, with an eye toward adjusting the biological opinion for salmon.

Twitter: @debra_kahn | Email:

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