Farm Progress

Delta smelt shuts down major water supply

Harry Cline 1

June 16, 2007

4 Min Read

All it took was a sparse population of minnow-like smelt and two days for state and federal water contractors to turn off the drinking and irrigation water spigots for 25 million Californians and almost 1 million acres of farmland.

The Department of Water Resources (DWR) stopped pumping at State Water Project (SWP) facilities in the Delta in late May to protect the Delta smelt.

A day later, federal officials dramatically cut back the amount of water being pumped to farmers and Southern California cities to the lowest level ever in an attempt to help save the endangered Delta smelt.

Never before have the pumps been shut down for fish.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation left running, for at least another week, one pump that draws from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

“We'll do everything we can to protect this fish,” Bureau of Reclamation spokesman Jeff McCracken said.

The announcements were just the latest development in the fight to save the smelt, a silvery, three-inch-long species protected under the California Endangered Species Act.

The virtual shutdown of the state's most significant water supply source was only expected to last about 7 to 10 days, but it was a wakeup call farmers and cities didn't want to hear.

The shutdowns followed the observed entrainment of juvenile smelt between May 25 and May 31 at the Harvey O. Banks pumping facility.

“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. That is why DWR will stop pumping in the Delta as a preventive measure to protect endangered fish that are currently located near our facilities.”

This year's toxic events in the Sacramento River system in the Delta occurred at a time when adult Delta smelt were concentrated and spawning. The extremely low numbers of young smelt, identified earlier this month, are likely a direct result of these toxic events.

“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.”

The shutdown was not expected to have a dramatic impact on California because there is downstream storage in reservoirs and underground water banks to carry cities and farmers through until the pumps are turned back on.

“This is another indication that the Delta is broken and needs to be fixed,” said Snow. “Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has repeatedly said that we need to invest in our water systems, including more storage, conservation, and a long term strategy for the Delta.”

Last year, the governor initiated a comprehensive Delta Vision process and appointed a Blue Ribbon Task Force to recommend future actions that will achieve a sustainable Delta. In addition, many state and federal agencies and environmental groups signed a formal planning agreement in September, 2006, and are developing a Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) for at-risk fish species.

This is being done under provisions of the State Natural Community Conservation Planning Act (NCCPA) and the federal Endangered Species Act Section 10, which allows for Habitat Conservation Plans (HCP). These efforts will provide a framework for future action.

The fate of the smelt and California's water supply turnbuckle hinges on the outcome of two lawsuits.

Last spring, an Alameda County Superior Court judge ordered the state to stop pumping water from the Delta within 60 days. The court found that the Department of Water Resources lacked the proper permits or authority to run the massive Harvey O. Banks pumping station.

The Natural Resources Defense Council and five other environmental groups sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service after the agency ruled that increases in state and federal pumping from the Delta would not harm the smelt.

However, Federal District Judge Oliver Wanger, Fresno, ruled the day after the pumps were shut down that the management plan for the Delta was not good enough scientifically, ordering federal and state water authorities to rewrite their management plans to protect the fish.

Wanger encouraged environmentalists to negotiate with authorities while the plan was being rewritten, and set a one-month timetable for state and federal officials to come up with a new plan to protect the smelt from the effects of two mammoth Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta pumping plants.

So the pumps can operate legally while the new plan is drawn, Wanger's order temporarily bars enforcement action under the Endangered Species Act.

Wanger set a July 2 deadline for the government agencies to say how they will fix the flawed biological opinion. He also set several later deadlines for the parties to submit alternative plans and critiques, followed by an Aug. 21 hearing in his courtroom.

Though it lacks commercial or recreational value, the Delta smelt is considered a prime indicator of the Delta's overall condition. Its well-being is especially imperiled in dry years, when natural Delta water flows are low and water demand is high along the canals, such as the California Aqueduct, that are supplied by pumped water.

Never before have Delta pumps gone silent because of an endangered fish.

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