Decades-Old Policies Won’t Bring Fish Back From Near Extinction

We don’t need “more of the same” efforts to save delta smelt with increased river flows, says Jason Peltier, executive director of the San Luis & Delta Mendota Water Authority, who calls for a comprehensive strategy.

Written by Jason Peltier Published on Read time Approx. 2 minutes
Luke Ellison, research supervisor at the University of California Davis Fish Conservation and Culture Lab, demonstrates how a tag is placed in a delta smelt for future study at the lab in Byron, Calif. The tiny, endangered fish, found in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, is at the center of the state's water battle.Rich Pedroncelli, AP

As environmental special interests request that the State Water Resources Control Board expand failed policies on delta smelt, Californians are calling on the board to implement new science-based, commonsense approaches to protect the species.

It is disheartening to see once-credible environmental organizations calling for a “more of the same” approach – one that has failed so miserably for a quarter-century – in a misguided attempt to help the imperiled delta smelt. Of course we must save them, but neither the public, nor the delta smelt, will benefit from a proposal built on fiction.

Claims that the [Central Valley and State Water] Projects have “sucked,” “trapped,” or made the Delta too salty through “massive water diversions” are patently untrue. Since the most severe cuts were imposed on the Projects nine years ago, less water has been diverted, and thus more Projects’ water has gone out to the ocean than at any other time in the past 35 years.

Drought, of course, has taken its toll, and throughout the Projects have compensated for Mother Nature’s stinginess with water released from reservoirs, making the Delta far fresher than it would have been naturally. This dedication of water for fish from what was stored for drought relief has resulted in unprecedented socioeconomic and environmental harm to towns, farms and numerous species living in the largest wetlands in the West.

Yet, despite all of the sacrifice, billions of dollars spent and millions of acre-feet of water dedicated to delta smelt, their population decline continues unabated. Farmers, fishermen and environmentalists – everyone that truly cares about the status of our imperiled fisheries – should be furious. Decades-old state and federal policies have failed and brought delta smelt and salmon to the brink of extinction.

The last thing we need is more of the same.

Thankfully, there is a better way. For decades, many independent scientists have forewarned of this failure and have instead called for a comprehensive solution to address the array of factors hurting delta smelt, not just one. Simply calling for more water is like saying people just need a steady wind to survive – it is absurd. Like delta smelt, we need shelter, we need food and we need safety from predators, toxics and invasion. The state and federal regulatory agencies have ignored for far too long the full needs of delta smelt, willing to do only what is easy, and we have all suffered for it.

We can continue to ignore decades of sound scientific advice, or we can embark on a bold new initiative, one that is transparent and inclusive of stakeholders working with state and federal agencies to save delta smelt. While there is no evidence that releasing more water from reservoirs will increase the delta smelt population, the harm to the 25 million Californians and countless other species that depend upon that water is clear. California is a hydraulic society. Everything we are, the quality of life we know and the balance we aim to strike between our human needs and the protection of treasured species is rooted in this simple fact. Now is not the time for desperate action, it is the time for thoughtful action.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Water Deeply.

This statement was released by the San Luis & Delta Mendota Water Authority to the press and has appeared previously in the Santa Monica Observer and elsewhere.

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