The Californian Delta Smelt Controversy
Updated: Feb 26
The delta smelt is a little three-inch silvery blue fish that lives in the San Francisco Bay and the San Joaquin Delta, and its declining population numbers have incited California’s controversial water wars. Biologists warn the world that the pumps in the delta are harming the fish’s already delicate state and could cause extinction. However, efforts made to protect the delta smelt population in the San Joaquin Delta are countered by farmers, who complain about the lack of clean drinking water and freshwater for their crops.
How did this tiny fish become the heart of California’s water wars, and how valid is the concern for their declining population? Because of the Delta Smelt’s short lifetime (only about a year), the observed effects of pumping on their species are only immediate. However, researchers have discovered the source of the problem to be the depletion of freshwater from the delta for urban and agricultural use. A decrease in freshwater in the delta means an increase in the amount of salt water flowing in. The extra salt water hurts the ecosystem in the delta and bay as a whole.
From 2012 to 2016, California suffered yet another drought, and Northern California needed to pump more water for their cities and farms. The delta smelt population suffered as a result, to the point where only 6 smelt were found in 2015, compared to 1,673 at their peak in 1970. Currently, it is unknown how many smelt are left in the wild, and scientists are concerned that the fish are too few and too spread out to reproduce.
Water use isn’t the only force against the struggling delta smelt; the pumps that suck water from the delta are also of note. Because the smelt are poor swimmers, they can get sucked into the pumping system. There is a system in place that collects the fish and trucks them back to the delta, but the fish are exposed to stress and predators along the way, and a 2012 study found that the system was insufficient altogether. Turning down the pumps when the smelt are near them has also been tried, but the delta smelt are elusive, and no one knows exactly where they are.
Because other solutions are inefficient, state laws restrict the amount of water that the state can pump, but also allow overrides in dire situations, and this is the reason for California’s water wars. Farmers and agricultural industries argue that the restricted pumping over an “arbitrary” fish is hurting their industry. Scientists submit a thousand page report warning that more pumping would continue to endanger not only the smelt but the Chinook salmon and the resident killer whales too.
So who’s truly suffering here? The answer is both parties. According to biologist Carl Wilcox, “The issue in the delta has always been balancing the amount of freshwater outflow through the delta versus exports and upstream water diversions.” So the issue, it seems, comes down to water management, especially during the droughts that climate change has so kindly gifted us. In 2012, Californians didn’t act like it was a dry year, nor did they act in anticipation of a dry spell in the next year.
At this point biologists don’t think the smelt can bounce back from their current dire state, and it’s likely that the little fish is headed to extinction in the next few years, as it would take a massive amount of changes to the current water management system to keep them around. So why do they continue to fight? Because it’s not just the smelt that are suffering. It’s also the salmon and the killer whales and the whole ecosystem in the delta. If the smelt go, and California does nothing to their water management systems, the salmon and killer whales might be next to go, hurting the fishing industries in the process.
At the end of the day, the delta smelt are just the harbinger, signaling the tipping of the delicate balance of the delta's ecosystem and the potential damage of pumping and poor water management on wildlife.