California Delta Smelt Controversy

In the state of California where every drop counts, how is it possible that the government is dumping trillions of fresh water into the San Francisco Bay that could be piped back to depleting reservoirs in the southern part of the state all because of a 2-inch fish called a Delta Smelt?  What is the California delta smelt controversy?

The Delta Smelt is a nearly extinct tiny, silvery blue fish that feeds directly on the planktonic base of the food chain, & in turn, is food to larger fish & birds linking plankton & vertebrates that have been at the heart of a longtime war with agriculture over California’s H2O usage & diversion

Biologists and Environmentalists believe if the smelt goes, and California does nothing to its 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 is just the harbinger, signaling the tipping of the delicate balance of the delta’s ecosystem while farmers look to survive their own way of life with agriculture at stake.


San Joaquin Delta


See the source image The San Francisco Bay area is a biodiversity hot spot as the human population grows the wetlands and natural habitats suffer. The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta covers 1,600 square miles and drains more than 40% of the state of California, with its waterways and wetlands forming the country’s  West Coast’s largest estuary.

The Delta is formed at the western edge of the Central Valley by the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers and lies just east of where the rivers enter Suisun Bay, which flows into San Francisco Bay and then the Pacific Ocean via San Pablo Bay.

The San Joaquin Delta provides a habitat for numerous kinds of fish and wildlife species, with most of the state’s migrating waterfowl and shorebirds and two-thirds of the state’s spawning salmon moving through this area. Conservation is a number one priority despite urban sprawl and is credited with saving many species that are threatened but are not extinct.

Sadly about a dozen of the Delta’s original 29 indigenous fish species have been eliminated entirely or are currently threatened with extinction. Scientists are now warning of an ecological crash of fish populations and the Delta food web due to increasing water diversions for export, loss of habitat, increased competition from introduced species, and reduced water quality caused by pesticides and contaminants polluting the estuary.

This includes the popular Delta Smelt fish, the longfin smelt, green sturgeon, Sacramento splittail, Central Valley steelhead trout, and Pacific lamprey among others.


California Delta Smelt


Delta Smelt

It seems that many species of fish need to be preserved these days and with this huge responsibility comes with it a choice that demands a sacrifice to keep the natural order of things that only us stewards of the world can make. One such species is the Delta Smelt. If the Delta Smelt goes extinct then we lose that species forever but if we try and protect it what are the costs of doing so? 

The Delta Smelt which has a lifespan of only a year or so 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.

In 1993 the Delta Smelt was listed as a Threatened Species under The California Endangered Species Act a federal law championed by Richard Nixon back in 1973.

In 2009 The Center for Biological Diversity sued the Fish and Wildlife Service to compel it to upgrade the delta smelt’s Endangered Species Act status from threatened to endangered. The fish requires specific conditions like freshwater flow, water temperature, salinity, and habitat types in shallow open waters within the estuary for migration, spawning, egg incubation, rearing, and larval and juvenile transport from spawning to rearing habitats.

Delta smelt feeds exclusively on plankton from the environment. Up until the 1990s, the Delta Smelt was very abundant but the population has been falling especially in the last few decades with the onset of drought conditions and the Delta freshwater outflow, and export rates. Other reasons are related to invasive species using their food source.

  • Biologists warn the world that the pumps in the delta are harming the fish’s already delicate state and could cause extinction.
  • Farmers accuse the government of caring more for tiny fish than farms, people, and the growing water crisis.
  • Others believe the answer lies somewhere in between.

The tiny delta smelt fish is one of the best indicators of environmental conditions in the San Francisco Bay Delta, an ecologically important estuary that is a major hub for California’s water system.

The once-abundant species is now in critical condition due to the record:

  • High water diversions
  • Pollutants
  • Harmful nonnative species thrive in the degraded Delta habitat.


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 fresh water for their crops on their farmland.

Delta smelt and the California agriculture industry have one thing in common: the need for freshwater. In California, agriculture accounts for about 62% of net water use, while urban and industrial use is approximately 16%. The remaining 22% of water is designated for environmental uses, such as maintaining streamflows and wetlands and protecting wildlife.



California Dumps Trillions of Gallons of Water


California has been less reliant on surface water and more dependent on groundwater pumping which has led to more issues like declining groundwater levels and even cases where groundwater overpumping has caused the ground to sink and even cave in called subsidence.

To offset this California has come up with rules and regulations on not only limiting surface water but also groundwater usage. These regulations cost the state more and more as the temperatures and drought continue to compound problems crippling farms in the area. This equates to jobs and crop production that lack water brings to agriculture.

A Decade on the California Delta | NRDCWith less water moving from snow melt and wet winter in the northern part of California, there is less in the Delta regions that eventually feed the southern end of the state which they depend on more than ever.

Before the Delta Smelt crisis, the farmers were supplied as much as 70% of delivery from California’s aqueduct and now that has dropped to around 20% and less. That reduction of water now is being flushed from the Delta into the ocean. 

The reason that California is flushing freshwater through the Delta into the ocean is to save the Delta Smelt fish from extinction by using freshwater to keep salinity and pollutant levels down and the water that there neutral.

Farmers say that there are bad management practices practiced by the state and not pollutants in the Delta like the introduction of Striped Bass to the Delta years ago that eat baby salmon and the Delta Smelt.

Farmers say that 60-70% of freshwater flows through streams derived from snowmelt from Northern California comes into the Delta and is pumped out to the ocean. Besides the water being wasted brings water costs for farmers even higher making it even harder.

As the result, farmers in this part of California are abandoning their farms and walking away from crops because of this water crisis. All this could have been avoided if water officials would have done a better job with the water that does come to the state as it did in 2017 considered one of the wettest winters on record. California produces about 70% of the table food for America and that food needs irrigation to be produced. 


Water Scarcity is an issue that will affect many people around the world. California, maybe because of its size which is close to the size of countries around the world, and its arid climate, drought, and temperature can be a study where the rest of the world may be in the near future.

According to Darcy Burke who is the President of Elsinore Valley Water District says that “a lot of the drought that California suffers from is man-made” she explains that California laws and court rulings are restricting the amount of water that is captured and distributed.  “Environmental ruling throughout the state operate the system not how it was intended to be operated”




Water Pipeline to California

For great informative articles on California and the Southwest stay here on MyWaterEarth&Sky-Every day the rain doesn’t come, and the solutions that sounded expensive and over the top now may be the only answer. One of them is piping water from other parts ……….. Continue reading


JimGalloway Author/Editor



References: Center for Biological Diversity- Saving the Delta Smelt

WHYY PBS- A tiny fish on the brink of Extinction



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