California smelt going fast – 07/10/2008

  • December 10, 2013 at 3:58 am #1751

    U.S. proposes to put smelt on endangered list
    Steve Rubenstein, Chronicle Staff Writer
    Thursday, July 10, 2008

    (07-09) 20:49 PDT — The delta smelt, a tiny but important fish in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, could officially become “endangered” under a proposal announced Wednesday by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

    Smelt are an indicator of the delta’s health, and nearly 750,000 acres of farmland and 25 million people from the Bay Area to Central and Southern California rely on water from the delta.

    The smelt population has plummeted with the decline of the delta’s health, and in 1993 it was listed as threatened.

    “There’s a lot of fighting going on over this species,” acknowledged Al Donner, a spokesman for the service. “It’s often viewed as the signature species with regard to the condition of the delta.”

    The wildlife service is asking scientists to submit information about the smelt during the next 60 days. A decision to upgrade the status to “endangered” could come early next year.

    The smelt, once ubiquitous in delta waters, is now close to extinction and could disappear entirely within two years. The debate over its status follows a federal court order last year to reduce delta pumping and to study the inadvertent killing of smelt at two giant pumping stations near Tracy, where fresh delta water is diverted throughout California.

    The wildlife service maintains that changing the official status of the fish will make “very little difference” on regulations, as the fish is officially protected whether it is threatened or endangered. But environmental groups hailed the decision to consider action as an important step in the water battle.

    “The condition of this species is really, really dire,” said Tina Swanson, executive director of the Bay Institute, the Novato environmental group that monitors San Francisco Bay. “Its precipitous decline is a clear indication that we have a serious problem in the delta.”

    Swanson was one of the authors of a federal petition that prompted the wildlife service to consider changing the status of the fish.

    “Diverting water is not without consequences,” she said. “The delta smelt is one of the indicators telling us we have overdone it. Perhaps the change in status will underscore the urgency of the crisis.”

    But the Coalition for a Sustainable Delta, a group that supports continued diversion of delta water, maintains that restricting the pumping to protect the smelt could cost nearly $500 million a year in agricultural losses along with water shortages for the public.

    Coalition spokesman Michael Boccadoro said it was “erroneous” to blame delta water diversion as the sole cause of the smelt’s decline and that pollution, sewage and storm runoff also were responsible.

    In addition to considering the smelt’s status change, the wildlife service is also crafting a new “biological opinion” about the operation of the water pumps after a judge in Fresno agreed with environmentalists’ challenges that the existing pumping plans were inadequate. The opinion, expected to be issued in September, would serve as the basis for the pumps’ continued operation.

    The condition of the delta, once a rich, biologically diverse refuge of fish and wildlife, is regarded by many environmentalists as dire. Some say it is no longer a true delta but a maze of man-made islands bordered by stagnant sloughs and buttressed by fragile levees that will disappear in the next big earthquake.

    “Endangered” is the official term for a species in danger of extinction. “Threatened” means a species is likely to become endangered. The delta smelt – a 2-inch-long fish that smells like cucumbers – was once the most plentiful fish in the delta.

    Other delta species have been classified as endangered, including the coho salmon and the winter-run chinook salmon. The steelhead, the green sturgeon and the spring-run chinook salmon are classified as threatened.

    E-mail Steve Rubenstein at
    This article appeared on page A – 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle

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