[env-trinity] A Victory for the Fish: State Stops Pumping to Protect Delta Smelt!

Dan Bacher danielbacher at fishsniffer.com
Thu May 31 20:54:19 PDT 2007

  A Victory for the Fish: State Stops Pumping to Protect Delta Smelt!
By Dan Bacher

In a move heralded as a huge victory by fishing and environmental  
groups, the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) today  
announced it will stop pumping at State Water Project (SWP)  
facilities in the Delta to provide “maximum protection” for Delta  
smelt, a species listed under the federal and state Endangered  
Species Acts.

DWR halted operation of the massive water export pumps this morning  
after Ryan Broddrick, director of the Department of Fish and Game  
(DFG), asked DWR to stop the pumps to prevent any further “take” of  
the threatened smelt. DFG made this request, which will be extended  
to other south Delta water diverters, after reductions from the State  
Water Project failed to prevent the salvage of smelt due to high  
tidal influences expected through June 3, according to a DFG press  

“Recent surveys indicate that Delta smelt abundance is at an all time  
low,” said Broddrick. “These further extraordinary actions are  
necessary to protect Delta smelt that are currently extremely  
vulnerable to diversions in the south Delta.”

This action follows the observed entrainment of increasing numbers of  
juvenile smelt between May 25 and May 31 at the Harvey O. Banks  
pumping plant facility in the South Delta. The move occurs at a time  
when Delta smelt have declined to record lows, as evidenced by a  
recent DFG survey that found only 25 juvenile smelt throughout the  
entire Delta.

“Drastic times call for drastic measures,” said DWR Director Lester  
Snow. “While there are clearly many factors at play in the current  
decline of smelt in the Delta, we must act on the one that is within  
our control.”

“DWR saw the handwriting on the wall,” stated Bill Jennings, chairman  
of the Watershed Enforcers, a project of the California Sportfishing  
Protection Alliance. “Given the massacre of Delta smelt and other  
species that is taking place at the pumps, the state knew we would  
file a request with Alameda County Superior Court Frank Roesch to  
take emergency action to save the fish.”

The judge in March ordered DWR to get a “take permit” for the smelt,  
spring run chinook and winter run chinook salmon that it kills in the  
massive state water export facilities, but the state appealed the  

The state apparently took preemptive action, realizing that the “body  
count” of smelt was 168 smelt at the state facilities and 216 at the  
federal pumps by Wednesday, a total of 384 fish, according to Jennings.

The Delta Smelt Working Group, a group of federal and state  
biologists, recently warned that the “species has become critically  
imperiled and an emergency response is warranted.” They recommended  
that reverse flows in the South Delta caused by excessive water  
exports be eliminated as soon as possible to protect the remaining  
smelt at a critical time in their life history.

The State Water Project supplies water to 25 million Californians and  
750,000 acres of farmland. Some water deliveries will be made to  
South San Francisco Bay users from water supplies already in the  

"Our actions to save the smelt will place a real hardship on some  
water users in the Bay Area, Central Valley and Southern California,”  
said Snow. “However, given the concerns about the Delta smelt, this  
is a prudent action at this time."

Snow challenged other public agencies with jurisdiction over  
activities affecting Delta smelt, including the federal government,  
to take “aggressive actions” to protect the species.

  “Scientific studies indicate that pelagic fish are affected by many  
stressors. Water project operations can affect fish. However,  
invasive species, toxics, and diversion by many other water users in  
the south Delta have dramatic effects on these fish,” DWR stated.

In early 2005, state and federal scientists working on the  
Interagency Ecological Program (IEP) first identified the decline in  
four once abundant pelagic fish species – Delta smelt, longfin smelt,  
threadfin shad and juvenile striped bass.

Since then, state and federal scientists have conducted extensive  
studies to determine the causes for the decline in pelagic fish  
productivity in the Bay/Delta Estuary. The scientists originally  
pinpointed changes in water exports, toxic chemicals and invasive  
species as the three most likely causes of the pelagic organism  
decline (POD).

More recently, both agency and independent scientists, although  
considering the toxics and invasive species to still be factors, have  
concluded that increases and changes in state and federal water  
export operations to be the key factor in the collapse of Delta smelt  
and other species. Water exports have increased dramatically – by an  
average of 1,000,000 acre-feet of water each year since 2002.

Today’s action occurs within the context of a series of  
recommendations issued by the POD Team in March that emphasize the  
need for reduced Delta exports and other actions to save Delta smelt,  
longfin smelt, threadfin shad, juvenile striped bass and other species.

Although environmental justice advocates are encouraged by today’s  
action, Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, Campaign Director of Restore the  
Delta, questioned why this action occurred only when the smelt were  
on the verge of extinction.

“Is this action too little too late for the Delta smelt?” she asked.  
“Did the Department of Water Resources continue sitting idle over the  
last four years when earlier actions could have kept the Delta from  
reaching this point of crisis?”

Parrilla and other Delta advocates are also asking whether the  
federal government will respond with similar actions to protect the  
Delta smelt and other imperiled species.

Federal Judge Oliver Wanger ruled on May 26 that a controversial  
government assessment of the risk to delta smelt from the state pumps  
is illegal and must be rewritten. It is expected that environmental  
and fishing groups will go back to federal court to obtain an  
emergency order forcing the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to also cease  
its pumping operations to protect delta smelt.

“The smelt is the Delta’s canary in the coal mine,” said Jennings.  
“It was historically one of the most abundant, if not the most  
abundant Delta species. Now it is on the precipice of extinction and  
has been reduced to a level where you can name each one that is left.”

The Delta smelt is an indicator species of the health of the  
ecosystem. If the Delta smelt becomes extinct, splittail, longfin  
smelt, spring run chinook, winter run chinook and other species are  
expected to follow. Hopefully, the federal government will quickly  
follow the state in ceasing operation of its Delta water export  

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