Estuary in Collapse: ZERO delta smelt and Sacramento splittail reported In November CDFW survey


By Dan Bacher | 

We will see the final results for the pelagic (open water) species surveyed at the end of December or in early January after the October through December totals of Delta smelt, longfin smelt, striped bass, threadfin shad, American shad and Sacramento splittail caught in the annual trawl are tallied by the CDFW.

Once the most abundant native fish in the entire Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, no Delta Smelt were reported in the Fall MIdwater Trawl in either 2018 and 2019, due to many years of massive water exports from the Delta through the State Water Project and Central Valley Water Project, combined with toxics, invasive species and declining water quality.

Found only in the Delta, the Delta smelt is an indicator species that shows the health of the ecosystem. Decades of water exports to corporate agribusiness interests in the San Joaquin Valley and to Southern California water agencies have resulted in putting the small 2 to 3 inch fish, with a cucumber-like smell, on the verge of extinction in the wild.

Other fish didn’t fare very well in the October survey either.

The trawl also found 0 Sacramento splittail in November 2020, just as it has every October since 2012.

The trawl reported 22 longfin smelt, a cousin of the Delta Smelt, an improvement over the zero longfin smelt reported over the previous two months. That compares to 4 last October.

For striped bass, an introduced anadromous gamefish species that has declined dramatically since the State Water Project started in 1967, the index for this November was just 16, as compared to 60 last November.

The index for American shad, another introduced anadromous gamefish, was 330 this November, compared to 618 last November.

Finally, the index for threadfin shad, an introduced anadromous gamefish, was 522 this November, compared to 251 last November.

While there are still one more month of data to be tallied in the Fall Midwater Trawl, it doesn’t look very promising so far for the Delta’s once thriving pelagic species.

Another survey that focuses just on Delta Smelt, the Enhanced Delta Smelt Monitoring Program conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, recently completed phase 3 sampling for 2020 with dismal results.

Over 2,700 hundred tows/samples from June to November turned up only 22 Delta Smelt. Only two of these fish were caught since the late summer heat waves: https://fws.gov/lodi/juvenile_ fish_monitoring_program/edsm/ Enhanced%20Delta%20Smelt% 20Monitoring%20Report%20% 28Weekly%20Summary%29/Archive/ EDSM_report_203_2020_11_30.pdf

While all of these fish species have declined dramatically from water exports over the decades, as well as from toxics and decreased water quality, it is the Delta smelt that has become the scapegoat for agribusiness’ water woes.

The weaponization of Delta Smelt in the California water wars

The state and federal water contractors and their political promoters, including Congressman Devin Nunes and lame duck President Donald Trump, have blamed the Delta smelt for restrictions on Delta pumping for San Joaquin Valley irrigators.

In Trump’s first interview after announcing he tested positive for the coronavirus, he  whined about the smelt, claiming that California “sends millions of gallons of water out to sea, to the Pacific” because “they want to take care of certain tiny little fish that aren’t doing very well without water, they have farms here and they don’t get water.”

“It is so ridiculous they’re taking the water and shoving it out to sea,” Trump said.

In May at the annual GOP Congressional Luncheon, in a turgid and at times incomprehensible rant, Trump also blamed the smelt for his wealthy agribusiness supporters not receiving federal project water:

And then you look at this massive turn, they had a turn, it takes a day to turn it, like a big faucet. And they turn it. And It veers all of the water out into the Pacific. It’s crazy.  So we’re all set except you need Gavin’s signature all of the way up. If you get Gavin’s signature – you can have water from Los Angeles all of the way up. And It’s the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen. I thought, I thought, it was the drought. No, he said, we have tremendous amounts of water but we send it out to the Pacific Ocean and it was over the smelt. So if you can get his signature.”

However, findings published in the journal San Francisco Estuary & Watershed Science in March 2019 reveal that water exports from the South Delta were actually limited by infrastructure and water quality concerns far more often than protections for endangered species.

During the 2010-2018 study period, 89% of Central Valley water flowing into San Francisco Bay was the result of salinity control and infrastructure constraints on water exports compared to less than 1.5% caused by endangered species act safeguards specific to protection of Delta smelt from entrainment in the export pumps, according to the study.

“Safeguards for the San Francisco Bay estuary’s six endangered fish species led to relatively small increases in freshwater flow to the Bay,” said Greg Reis, staff scientist for The Bay Institute and lead author of the research article. “In two of the nine years, we studied, protections for Delta Smelt did not limit water exports for even a single day — the effect on water supplies of protecting this unique species, which functions as an indicator of overall ecosystem health, is far less than what’s commonly reported.”

Dr. Jonathan Rosenfield, Senior Scientist at San Francisco Baykeeper and co-author of this study, stated:

“Despite water quality regulations that are intended to protect fisheries and wildlife populations in general, and endangered species act protections for the most imperiled fishes, the proportion of Central Valley river flows that make it all the way to San Francisco Bay has been declining for decades. Currently, Californians divert, on average, about 1/2 of the ecologically critical winter-spring runoff that would otherwise flow into San Francisco Bay, and the fish, wildlife, and water quality that rely on this water are suffering as a result.”

The prospects for the survival of Delta smelt, imperiled salmon and other fish species are grim unless the state and federal governments allow more quality water to flow into the San Francisco Bay-Delta ecosystem at critical times.

And the Delta Tunnel that Governor Gavin Newsom is promoting will only make things worse for imperiled Delta fish species, as if they weren’t bad enough already.

When the complete results of the CDFW fall midwater trawl are posted in December, I will publish the results and a complete analysis here.

The cause of the collapse of Delta smelt: Big Ag regulatory capture

The plunge of the Delta smelt population towards extinction has been made possible by the capture of the regulators by the regulated, including Big Ag and other corporate interests, in California. Corporate agribusiness exerts inordinate influence over the Legislature, the Governor’s Office and the regulatory agencies, ranging from the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Financial data from www.followthemoney.org reveals that Governor Gavin Newsom received a total of $755,198 in donations from agribusiness, key proponents of the Delta Tunnel, in the 2018 election cycle.

That figure includes $116,800 from Beverly Hills agribusiness tycoons Stewart and Lynda Resnick, the largest orchard fruit growers in the world. The Resnicks are the sponsors of the Coalition for a Sustainable Delta, a corporate agribusiness Astroturf group that seeks to obtain more water from the Delta for corporate growers like the Resnicks and to blame salmon population crashes on the striped bass — even though the two species successfully coexisted for over 100 years.

By fast-tracking the Delta Tunnel plan, promoting the voluntary water agreements, overseeing the issuing of a new draft EIR that increases water exports for the state and federal projects rather than reducing them, and backing Sites Reservoir, all projects that will make the Delta Smelt’s continued existence in the wild even more tenuous, Newsom appears to bending to the wishes of his agribusiness donors.




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