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Why the Endangered Delta Smelt Needs Relief

Environmental groups are calling on the California State Water Resources Control Board to increase freshwater flows to help critically endangered delta smelt. Kim Delfino of Defenders of Wildlife explains why.

Written by Kim Delfino Published on Read time Approx. 2 minutes
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists monitor for delta smelt near Rio Vista on the Sacramento River.Steve Martarano/USFWS

The delta smelt is a tiny silver fish with an oversized number of problems. To begin with, this fish is on the brink of extinction, and may not survive the next few years. It also faces threats such as getting sucked into giant pumps that divert water south, or being trapped by predators when the pumps pull river flows backward.

As if that was not bad enough, the extended drought has ravaged California over four years, making freshwater scarce, and massive water diversions are making the delta smelt’s habitat way too salty. Add to that the fact that the delta smelt has become the poster child for water wars waged in the halls of Congress, and it all stacks up pretty poorly for the little fish that was once considered a bellwether of the overall health of the San Francisco Bay Estuary, the largest estuary on the west coast of the Americas.

We are seeking relief for the delta smelt. Instead of ensuring that this fish gets the water it needs to survive, the federal and state agencies have continued to tip the scales against the delta smelt by allowing more and more water to be diverted away from the San Francisco Bay Estuary. Last week Defenders of Wildlife joined with the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Bay Institute to call upon the California State Water Resources Control Board to issue an emergency ruling to save this endangered fish by providing it with more of the freshwater flows it needs. By sending more water to the San Francisco Bay Estuary to help the smelt survive, the water board will also improve the overall health of the estuary.

In June, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined the minimum water levels needed to support delta smelt. But state (California Department of Water Resources) and federal (U.S. Bureau of Reclamation) water management agencies are not providing enough water to create those habitat conditions. Instead, water is being diverted from key waterways that feed into the San Francisco Bay Estuary. So we’re asking California’s water board to step up and adopt emergency regulations to bring more freshwater flows into the estuary to restore the habitat conditions that the delta smelt need to survive.

The fight here is not just about saving the delta smelt. It is a fight to save the San Francisco Bay Estuary and all of the fish and wildlife that live there. The fish and wildlife agencies recognized that when they called for more water, and we have joined in that call with our request to the water board.

Will the water board respond? We sure hope so.

A version of this op-ed was first published on Defenders of Wildlife Blog.

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

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