Shutting off the water pumps to save delta smelt
Brandon Middleton, San Francisco Chronicle January 8, 2009
There's great cause for concern over the biological opinion issued
by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the form of a new rules
to protect the delta smelt, a fish species that is listed as
threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act. That's
because millions of Californians depend upon the continued
operation of two large irrigation projects for a reliable supply
of water. And the scientific reasons for shutting them down to
protect the smelt are dubious at best.
The two water operations in question, the Central Valley Project
and the State Water Project, depend on pumps located at the
southern end of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, to move water
flowing into the delta from Northern California to water users
through Southern California and the Central Valley. Recent court
decisions have identified the operations' pumps as a major cause
of the smelt's decline, and the Fish and Wildlife Service's
decision will force a dramatic reduction in pumping.
Obviously, protecting the delta smelt and other delta fish species
is important. But unfortunately, the numerous farmers who will be
severely affected by the water restrictions cannot take solace in
knowing that their pain will be ameliorated by the delta smelt's
There is little science to support the notion that pumping
restrictions will solve the problem of the smelt's decline.
Myriad factors negatively affect the well-being of the delta
smelt. These include, but are not limited to, a low food supply,
presence of predatory fish and a toxic water habitat for the
smelt. The pumps play a role through entrainment, meaning that
smelt can sometimes get sucked into the pumps.
But the significance of this and how it affects the species is
unknown. No one knows how many smelt are in the delta.
Moreover, no study has shown a definitive link between the pumps
and smelt viability. As a federal judge overseeing litigation
concerning the delta smelt has noted, there is no one cause for
the smelt's decline. And yet, as a 2008 CALFED report indicates,
the pumps are "blamed for many of the delta's ills," despite their
being "no conclusive evidence that export pumping has caused
population declines" of delta fish species.
Environmentalists contend that increased water pumping
restrictions are necessary "to halt and reverse the trend toward
species extinction, whatever the cost," in line with a 1978
Supreme Court decision on the Endangered Species Act. But even
that dubious principle acknowledges that whatever is done on
behalf of a threatened or endangered species should at least
reverse a species' decline. In contrast, there is nothing close to
a guarantee that increased pumping restrictions will help the
It would have been a pleasant surprise if the Fish and Wildlife
Service had taken the above into account when it released its
biological opinion. Much is at stake, as delta water deliveries
help to sustain the state agriculture industry and play a key role
in the state's energy, tourism and entertainment industries, not
to mention everyday human activity.
It makes no sense to make the pumps the scapegoat for the delta
smelt's decline, at the cost of threatening the water supply for
millions of human beings.
Craig Manson is a professor at the University of the Pacific
McGeorge School of Law and a former U.S. Department of the
Interior assistant secretary. Brandon Middleton is an attorney
with Pacific Legal Foundation (