California's Man-Made Drought: A 7 Part Detail On One Large Mistake

Categories: Survival

Part 3:  Delta Smelt, Icon of California Water Wars, Is Almost Extinct

Tiny fish's survival hangs in the balance as severe drought and decades of water pumping drain its habitat.

Living only in California, the delta smelt is a tiny, silvery blue fish that has been at the heart of a longtime war over the state's water. Scientists warn that the smelt is nearing extinction after four years of severe drought and decades of water diversions.
By Jane Kay, National Geographic

SAN FRANCISCO, California—A luminous little fish that smells like cucumbers and has the power to slow the flow of water to thirsty California cities and farms is swimming closer to extinction.

Only six delta smelt—the lowest number ever found—were netted in a survey by state biologists last month. In previous years, as many as several hundred had been caught in spring surveys.

The population of the three-to-four-inch (eight to ten centimeters) silvery blue fish, which lives only in the San Francisco Bay and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, has been falling for decades as huge volumes of freshwater are diverted through hundreds of miles of aqueducts and canals.

The new data, gathered in the fourth year of a record-breaking, severe drought, alarmed Peter Moyle, a University of California, Davis biologist, enough to warn state officials that the delta smelt is likely to soon be extinct in the wild.


Part 4:  The Fish That Everyone Loves or Hates

Protected by the Endangered Species Act, the delta smelt is a powerful and divisive symbol of the troubles endured by the whole bay-delta ecosystem that is spread across northern and central California. Because smelt live only one year, they immediately reflect the ecological problems created by a massive system of dams, reservoirs, and aqueducts that export water south.

A century and a half ago, water from two great rivers—fed by Sierra Nevada snowmelt and carving out California's expansive Central Valley—flowed to a vibrant delta and bay, and then ran to the ocean. The flows of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers kept saltwater from intruding into the fresher delta, and the smelt spawned in the delta and fed in the bay. The water also replenished Chinook salmon spawning grounds and freshened bay habitat for Dungeness crab, waterfowl, and thousands of other plants and animals in the vast network of sloughs, wetlands, and mudflats.

Water in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, fed by snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada, has been diverted to California's farms and cities for decades.
But now most of that water is exported: 70 percent of California's water originates in the north, while more than 70 percent of the demand for it lies in the south. The flow quenches the thirst of two-thirds of the state's residents and three million acres of irrigated crops such as vegetables, citrus, grapes, and grains.

On Wednesday, Governor Jerry Brown ordered the first statewide mandatory restrictions on water usage in California history, aimed at a 25 percent cut. But that is unlikely to have any effect on the delta smelt's fate.

The fish used to be so plentiful that it was caught and sold commercially. Over the course of about three decades, "the delta smelt went from being the most common fish to one of the most rare," said Marty Gingras, a California Fish and Wildlife Department biologist who manages year-round smelt surveys.

In particular, the last two years of California's severe drought have contributed to the smelt's steep decline.

"It's a combination of Mother Nature, poor planning, and mismanaging of the water supply. Now everybody's hurting," said fish biologist Tina Swanson of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Even in wetter periods, water managers for the last 15 years have created drought conditions in the bay by exporting the rivers' freshwater, Swanson said.

"It's not just the delta smelt. Nearly every single native and non-native fish species is showing the same pattern. To me, that is an excruciatingly clear indication that our management of the environment in which they live—the delta and upper bay—is insufficiently protective," she said.

Water in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, fed by snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada, has been diverted to California's farms and cities for decades. 

In a March survey, only six delta smelt were caught by state biologists, compared with as many as several hundred in previous years. The fish used to be so plentiful that they were caught and sold commercially.

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