Is a Tiny Fish Causing California to Lock Down Water During Drought?

In the Herculean effort to save a tiny fish, California’s Delta Smelt,  billions of gallons of fresh water have reportedly been locked off, away from farmers who need it now during this drought. At least that’s one view.

Annual fresh water run off has been withheld every year for the fish in order to “maintain temperature” and “salinity levels” friendly to the smelt. What’s the problem? The fish are going extinct in spite of the biologist’s best efforts.


The Delta Smelt

One fish, versus the food supply

Fox News  wrote

California fruits and vegetables are sent all over the world,” said Republican state Assemblyman Travis Allen. “When we are diverting our water to save a few pinky-size fish and leaving hundreds of thousands of acres fallow – there is something wrong with our priorities.”

But major farm organizations are exploring a new option in the increasingly contentious fight, as the fish population continues to plummet despite conservation efforts: Declare the species extinct, and delist it as an endangered species, thus allowing regulators to turn on the pumps that appear lethal to the tiny minnows.

The numbers suggest the delta smelt, indeed, could be wiped out soon anyway. 

In a March 2012 trawl survey, wildlife officials found 296 fish. An identical sampling a month later found 143. But in April 2015, officials found a single fish, not enough to propagate the species. 

The other side of the story

The National Geographic said that actually 6 fish (4 males, 2 females) were found, not 1, but the smelt has become the sticking point for scientists who say they want to save it versus farmers who want the water for their crops. Biologists admit that they are in such small numbers that the species can’t propagate.

NatGeo says that the fish is going extinct BECAUSE of the lack of fresh water flowing into their habitat-  water that is being diverted to southern California, where 70% of the state’s demand occurs. But the farmers of the Sacramento delta area also need fresh water for their crops, which supply a huge percentage of America’s fruits and vegetables-.

The viewpoint is decidedly opposite- one says the fish are causing the water to be held back , the other says the water being diverted is causing the fish to go extinct. The problem may not just be the fish.

Some farm organizations are saying that the government just needs to declare the fish extinct, de-list it from the Endangered Species designation, and release the water.

“The issue in the delta has always been balancing the amount of freshwater outflow through the delta versus exports and upstream water diversions. Depending on your perspective, it’s either wasted water or it’s a beneficial use to the environment.”Carl Wilcox, a biologist with the state Fish and Wildlife Department.


The Sacramento delta region – photo by Robert Burrell, Reuters


Is this fight over water a harbinger of things to come?

As farmers and environmental groups fight over whether an endangered species of fish should be saved, the battle becomes who gets access to the water and why they are choosing a tiny little fish (or any other species) over people.

Water is one of the most deadly battlegrounds- without it both people and crops perish. No one likes to see species disappear- in the Delta region the once plentiful salmon are gone because of a hydroelectric dam, and with it a commercial fishing industry and many jobs. Even with fish ladders such as exist on the Columbia River in Oregon, a dam decimates a fish population.

But the answer is not to blow up the dams, (although many environmental groups actually advocate that solution), the answer is proper management.

California in 2012 treated the year as wet even when it was dry and drained the reservoirs. Had they properly managed their supply, they might have weathered this situation. Have they learned their lesson? Probably not- with the powerful interests involved in the Endangered Species battles, and the demand for water in Southern California, it is likely that money will win over common sense.


Shasta Lake reservoir- poor management and drought combined -EPA photo



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Faye Higbee

Faye Higbee

I'm a published author of 4 books, numerous short stories, blogs and editorials. I've been working at Uncle Sam's since 2013. I have two degrees in Criminal Justice and worked for over 31 years at a local police department. I have been a patriotic American since I was a child.

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