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With Smelt It’s ‘Groundhog Day’ in the Delta

We are bound to have the same problems this time nearly every year in the Delta until we modernize this water system and start capturing water north of smelt territory, as proposed by state and federal agencies via the plan known as California WaterFix.

Written by Tom Philp Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes

It is Groundhog Day again in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. The stormwaters from the Sierra have arrived. That means the tiny Delta smelt are on the move, which means wildlife agencies are slowing down the pumps that sustain the California economy – so the pumps do not take in large numbers of the fish.

This year is the strangest of all. The pumps of the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project hadn’t taken a single smelt when things slowed down. At first, supplies sufficient to run the cities of Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco were going uncaptured every day. Since then, the cutbacks have only increased.

In Hollywood’s 1993 version of “Groundhog Day” Bill Murray’s curmudgeonly Pittsburgh weatherman wakes up in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, again and again on the morning of Groundhog Day to see if furry “Punxsutawney Phil” will cast his shadow. This continues until such time as he stops offending upbeat weathercaster Andie MacDowell, embraces the event and the town – and MacDowell embraces him. This takes all of 101 minutes.

The Delta’s version of Groundhog Day, on the other hand, is a worsening years-long nightmare.

The latest plot twist began to unfold in the fall, when wildlife agencies started looking for smelt in some dubious places. Science in recent years has revealed that Delta smelt can prefer habitat closer to shore for safety and make their move midstream when the tides are in their favor and turbid waters allow them to hide from predators. Yet every fall, wildlife agencies conduct their official surveys by casting large nets in the middle of flowing Delta channels, seeking shore-hugging smelt.

The monitoring found a record low number of smelt this fall. And this resulted in the lowest permissible number of adult smelt the State Water Project and Central Valley Project pumps can take this year – 56. Yes, if more than 56 smelt are taken, additional restrictions are possible.

When the restrictions kicked in after January 14, not a single smelt had been taken at the pumps.

Meanwhile, between December 1 and January 14, wildlife officials had captured 69 smelt at two Delta monitoring locations. Capturing smelt, whether at the pumps or via monitoring, is a “take” under the Endangered Species Act.

Put another way, looking for smelt via monitoring will almost certainly take more of the species this year than pumping public water supplies for 26 million Californians and 3 million acres of agriculture.

To be sure, science is hugely important. Yet it is the detection of these 69 smelt that has triggered Groundhog Day.

By January 15, the state and federal water agencies that run the water projects faced an unsettling choice: Either “voluntarily” restrict pumping by about 1 billion gallons a day, or face mandatory restrictions of as much as 2 billion gallons a day.

They chose the billion-gallon restriction. “Voluntarily.”

Rain, strangely, can make things worse.

The first big storm can stir up turbidity in the Delta, providing cover for the smelt to move about with the tides, and raising concern that a population will head toward the pumps. This creates a cruel paradox: when the flows of fresh water can be at their highest, pumping levels can be at their lowest.

Will the Delta’s version of Groundhog Day ever end?

Maybe so. California WaterFix proposes to build three new intakes in the northern Delta. They are miles away from the smelt migration zone. The idea is to take a safe “Big Gulp” of water when Nature makes it available, such as right now. That, presumably, would solve the smelt problem.

A smarter water system can lead to smarter resource management for the good of the environment and economy. Is that too much to ask? Compared to California, Bill Murray had it easy.

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

Top image: In this Sept. 23, 2013 file photo, water flows through fish diversion louvres at the John E. Skinner Delta Fish Protective Facility from the Clifton Court Forebay on its way to the Harvey O. Banks pumping plant, near Tracy, Calif. (Rich Pedroncelli, Associated Press)

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