Sacramento Delta: now what?
The huge pumps in the Sacramento Delta provide water to thirsty farm fields and thirsty Californians. But they also affect species. The litigation over the Delta smelt will soon be legendary, once U.S. District Court Judge Oliver Wanger issues his orders to (re)direct pump operations to comply with the Endangered Species Act. But that victory for the environmentalists has consequences. Farms and people will receive less water. Other salmonid species in the same watershed will suffer as the quanities and timing of water deliveries are altered, disturbing the cues for their migrations. Huge numbers of shad will continue to be entrained in the pumps. See California Progress Report (Oct. 31, 2007) Water contractors will still argue that the striped bass eat the juvenile smelt and salmon. See www.indybay.org article. And don't forget about the potential contributions of invasive mussels. See San Francisco Chronicle (Feb. 5, 2006). See also Press Release (July 17, 2007). In sum, the mess in the Delta is far, far bigger than the fight over the tiny smelt.
Delta smelt image from U.S. FWS available online from Sacramento office of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
While some people remain critical of any suggestions to think (again) about building a perimeter canal to allow waters to be sent elsewhere without disturbing the flows in the Sacramento delta, see Recordnet.com (Sept. 6, 2007), the facts lead to only one conclusion: the status quo is unacceptable, and the intersection of law, politics, and science has caused a slow-motion train wreck in the region. Maybe the Delta smelt is an indicator species, see Aquafornia blog, or maybe its a species worthy only of a God Squad exemption. Maybe a perimeter canal is a brilliant idea whose time has arrived, or maybe it is another boondoggle. But given the endless litigation, and the obvious environmental problems, something must change in the Sacramento delta. Under the current system, either Californians can have water deliveries, or they can have a healthy Delta ecosystem. But right now, it seems, they can't have both.
Aerial photo of the Clifton forebay, upstream of the Harvey O. Banks Pumping Plant and the California aqueduct, from California Department of Water Resources
- The Role of Science in Balancing the Needs of Protected Species, available online.
- Center for Biological Diversity on the Delta smelt
- Tom Philp's Waterlog on the State of California Department of Water Resources: "DWR stops pumping to protect Delta smelt" (May 31, 2007)
- California Department of Water Resources Public Affairs webpages on The Central Valley Project and State Water Project
- 2004 Biological Opinion Re: the Delta Smelt, CVP, and SWP (Aug. 6, 2004)
(Full disclosure: the author worked on the Delta smelt litigation in his prior position as a DOJ attorney.)