California's Delta Smelt Could Merit Endangered Listing

SACRAMENTO, California, July 11, 2008 (ENS) – The delta smelt, a small silvery fish that has come to represent the condition of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Estuary, may be declared an endangered species under U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service action announced Wednesday.

The federal agency made a positive preliminary finding on a petition by three environmental groups to reclassify the smelt from “threatened” to “endangered.” The agency said the petition “contains substantial information that current threats to the delta smelt may be greater than in 1993,” when the fish was classified as threatened.

The Center for Biological Diversity, which, along with The Bay Institute and the Natural Resources Defense Council, petitioned for the reclassification in 2006, noted that the finding by the service was more than two years late.

“We are seeing a cascading series of crashing Delta fish populations – delta smelt, longfin smelt, chinook salmon, steelhead trout, green sturgeon, Sacramento splittail, striped bass – the warning bells are ringing loud and clear,” Jeff Miller of the Center for Biological Diversity said in a statement.

“The ecological collapse of the Delta threatens more than just our native fish since millions of people depend on the Delta for drinking water, agriculture, and fishing,” he said.

Delta smelt (Photo courtesy Assn.
of Fish and Wildlife Agencies)

Delta smelt used to be common in the Northern California estuary that forms a nexus between freshwater mountain runoff and saltwater from San Francisco Bay. The smelt population declined sharply in 1982 and stayed low for the rest of the decade, leading to the species’ listing as threatened in 1993.

From 1992 to 2001, the numbers rebounded somewhat, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, but dropped to record lows from 2002 through 2007.

The service cited a 2005 study that found a 55 percent chance that smelt would reach a “point of no return” – or virtual extinction – within 20 years.

A small fish the length of a finger, smelt are found only in the Delta. They are considered environmentally sensitive because they live mainly in the intersection between salt and freshwater, live only one year and have a limited diet, according to the California Department of Fish and Game.

The Fish and Wildlife Service is collecting comments on the prospective reclassification through September 8.

The agency noted that reclassification would have no practical effect: “An uplisting from threatened to endangered would result in virtually no change in our approach or actions we could take to assist the species because under the ESA [Endangered Species Act], there are few differences in treatment of species between the two categories.”

In a separate action, the Fish and Wildlife Service is under federal court order to revise a “biological opinion” it issued in 2005 that in effect allows delta smelt to be killed at two major water export pumping stations at the southern end of the Delta.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the federally owned Central Valley Project, and the California Department of Water Resources, which runs the State Water Project, used the wildlife’s agency’s opinion as justification to increase delta water exports and to renew 25 and 40 year contracts to irrigation districts and urban water agencies.

The new biological opinion is due by September 15.

Delta smelt are particularly vulnerable during winter and spring, when pre-spawning and spawning adults move into the delta for reproduction, and larvae and juveniles move downstream to rearing habitat.

In December 2007, Judge Oliver Wanger of the U.S. District Court in Fresno wrote, “The Delta smelt is undisputedly in jeopardy as to its survival and recovery. He ordered that enough water to ensure smelt survival must be held in the Delta and not pumped to downstream cities, towns and farms.

Water from the Delta supports about $400 billion dollars of the state’s $1.5 trillion dollar economy. The watershed of the San Francisco Bay-Delta Estuary provides a portion of the drinking water to 25 million people in the Bay Area, Central Valley, and Southern California and water to over 3.7 million acres of irrigated farmland.

For years, lawmakers and California governors have sought a permanent solution that could protect the Delta ecosystem and also provide reliable water transfers to downstream water users.

Governor Arnold Swarzenegger has established a Delta Vision Blue Ribbon Task Force, which has until the end of the year to develop a strategic plan.

In addition, in February, the governor directed the California Department of Water Resources to begin environmental reviews on at least four alternatives for a canal that would allow water to be sent to downstream users by circumventing the Delta. Those include a two-part system with a canal and pumps, a stand-alone canal, and improvements to the existing pumps, or no new Delta transfer system.

The studies could take two years and cost more than $100 million that would be paid for by water users under existing contracts.

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