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Joe Guzzardi: Is saving the Delta smelt worth the lost water?

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Posted: Friday, May 22, 2015 10:33 pm

The infamous Delta smelt recently found itself as the headline story in two of the nation’s most respected publications, the Wall Street Journal and National Geographic. Read together, the stories underline California’s greatest environmental challenge. With University of California paleoclimatoligist Lynn Ingram predicting that the drought could last another 200 years, how much longer can advocates make the case that the three-inch smelt must be saved despite its cost in increasingly scarce water?

In her book, “The West without Water: What Past Floods, Droughts and Other Climate Clues Tell Us about Tomorrow,” Ingram wrote that a medieval California once endured a century without water and fears that the comparatively wet 20th century may have been a fluke.

For California’s farmers, worrying about what may happen during the next two centuries places the cart before the horse. The State Water Resources Control Board has put California’s most senior water rights holders on alert that they may soon receive curtailment orders that would essentially cut off, for the first time since the 1970s, the river water flow to the state’s major agricultural districts.

The wisdom of providing plenty of water for the smelt but dramatically less water for farmers and residents is a subject that’s drawn national attention. After all, what’s produced in California is consumed in all 50 states.

Here’s an update on the smelt and the controversy swirling around it, helpfully provided by Journal editorial board writer Allysia Finley in her story. California’s almond growers need about 1.1 gallons of water to produce a single unit, homeowners use 1.3 gallons to flush their toilets, but to protect the smelt from water pumps, government regulators have since 2008 sent 1.4 trillion gallons into the San Francisco Bay, enough water to provide for 6.4 million Californians for six years.

Yet these dramatic measures have not helped the smelt’s fate. Protected since 1993 under the Environmental Species Act, the smelt’s population has been in steady decline for years with little chance of rebounding. Last month, the smelt count dropped to a record low of six, four females and two males. In 2002, biologists found 238. With an imbalanced ratio of male to female smelts, breeding becomes more unlikely.

University of California, Davis biologist Peter Moyle called the chances of the smelt surviving beyond two years is “small,” especially if the dry conditions continue. Moyle, who has studied the smelt for decades, feels a personal obligation to save it even though he admits few care about its fate.

Assemblyman Travis Allen’s opinion on the smelt more likely reflects the California majority. Allen said that when the state diverts water to save “a few pinky-size fish” while hundreds of thousands of acres are left fallow, there’s “something wrong with our priorities.”

As California’s water crisis deepens, it may be time to give up on the commercially useless smelt. Technically, they’ll never be extinct. At the UC Davis Fish Conservation and Cultural Laboratory, biologists have successfully raised the smelt in dozens of temperature-controlled tanks. Beginning with 160 fish in 2006, the labs have produced 250 pairs a year.

As Assemblyman Allen said, if it comes down to what he called “bait fish” or California’s parched families, “it’s a pretty easy decision to make.”

Joe Guzzardi retired from the Lodi Unified School District in 2008. He’s currently a Californians for Population Stabilization senior writing fellow. Contact him at joeguzzardi@capsweb.org.

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