*Say Feds’ action could doom endangered Delta smelt
*“This decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service … is simply reprehensible”
A decision made quietly by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service earlier this month to go along with a request by the Bureau of Reclamation could shove the endangered Delta smelt to the edge of extinction, environmental groups fear.
The Obama Administration decision allows more than twice as many endangered Delta smelt to be killed by the Central Valley Project’s pumps than had been previously allowed, say the California Water Impact Network and the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance.
The policy was adopted just days after the annual California Department of Fish and Wildlife reported that populations of the tiny, once-abundant fish have sunk to new lows.
The minnow-like Delta smelt is considered a prime indicator species for the health of California’s Bay/Delta system, the largest estuary on the west coast of the Western Hemisphere.
The Delta smelt “take” limit in the present “Biological Opinion” for the state and federal export pumping facilities, under the federal Endangered Species Act, is 78 adult fish.
As of Jan. 7, the state and federal export pumps had already “taken” 56 Delta smelt and were approaching the limit, which would trigger a limit to export pumping.
But on Jan. 9, the Bureau of Reclamation requested a “Reinitiation of Consultation” of the Biological Opinion with the Fish and Wildlife Service.
The Fish and Wildlife Service increased the interim incidental take limit of Delta smelt to 196 adult smelt the same day.
That came just two days after the state Department of Fish and Wildlife revealed that the number of Delta smelt had fallen to a new record low that was almost half of the previous record low in 2009. Only nine Delta smelt were collected in more than 400 individual trawls spanning the four months.
“As goes the Delta smelt, so goes the Delta,” says Bill Jennings, executive director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance. “The crisis isn’t limited to the smelt. All the (Bay/Delta’s) pelagic species are in trouble. This decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service … is simply reprehensible.”
Mr. Jennings calls it a “back-room deal” that will allow pumps for the state and federal water projects to kill 25 times the total number of adult smelt than were identified in CDFW surveys between September and December 2014.
“It’s morally indefensible and legally questionable,” he says. “It raises the question of whether the Obama Administration is the protector or executioner of an endangered species that was once the most numerous fish in the Delta.”
Tom Stokely, a senior water policy analyst for the California Water Impact Network, also criticizes the decision.
“This secret accord comes at a time when California Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer are calling for ‘science’ to guide all negotiations on California’s contentious water issues,” says Mr. Stokely. “This action cannot be justified by available science. It has nothing to do with science, and everything to do with political pressure from powerful interests who want to maintain a stranglehold on our state’s public water.”
Carolee Krieger, the executive director of the California Water Impact Network, says the only beneficiary of the decision is “San Joaquin Valley agribusiness. An increased Delta smelt kill translates directly as ongoing, excessive and subsidized water transfers to toxic San Joaquin Valley croplands owned by a handful of politically powerful corporate farmers.”