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SOURCE: CounterPunch

DATE: January 24, 2020

SNIP: The Delta smelt, once the most abundant species on the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, continues its steep slide towards extinction. For the second year in a row, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife in its annual fall midwater trawl survey in 2019 found zero Delta smelt during the months of September, October, November and December.

Found only in the San Francisco Bay-Delta Estuary, the smelt is an indicator species that shows the health of the ecosystem. Decades of water exports and environmental degradation under the state and federal governments have brought the smelt to the edge of extinction.

In spite of portraying their administrations as “green,” Governors Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jerry Brown and Gavin Newsom have done nothing that reverses the smelt’s path towards extinction. Instead, the Schwarzenegger, Brown and Newsom administrations have overseen massive exports of Delta water to San Joaquin Valley corporate agribusiness operations and Southern California water brokers.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration recently finalized a water plan that threatens the Delta smelt, salmon and other fish species even more than they already are by maximizing Delta water exports to agribusiness interests in the San Joaquin Valley.

The Delta smelt, Longfin smelt, Sacramento splittail, striped bass, American shad and threadfin shad are are all victims of the Pelagic Organism Decline, first coined by federal state and scientists to document the steep decline of pelagic (open water) fish and zooplankton in 2005. Scientists have pointed to Delta water export operations, toxics, invasive species and pollution as the key factors in this decline.

“Given the wet year we experienced in 2019, the numbers of Delta smelt, longfin smelt and splittail should have rebounded substantially, but instead it was another disastrous year for all three species,” said Bill Jennings, Executive Director/Chairman of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance (CSPA). “Also given the wet year, striped bass, American shad and threadfin shad should have rebounded more than they did. Clearly, the state and federal Delta pumping operations are sending Delta fish species to the guillotine.”

The 8 surveys conducted by the CDFW this spring produced a total of only 13 Delta smelt. Survey #1 yielded 2 smelt, survey #2 produced 1 smelt, survey #3 yielded 0 smelt, survey #4 produced 7 smelt, survey #5 yielded 1 smelt, survey #6 produced 1 smelt, survey #7 yielded 1 smelt, and survey 8 yielded 0 smelt.

While the water contractors blame the Delta smelt for restrictions on Delta pumping for San Joaquin Valley irrigators, findings published in the journal San Francisco Estuary & Watershed Science in March 2019 reveal that water exports from the South Delta were limited by infrastructure and water quality concerns far more often than protections for endangered species.

“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,” said Dr. Jonathan Rosenfield, Senior Scientist at San Francisco Baykeeper and co-author of this study. “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.

As Jennings said, “We know what fish need. Fish prosper when they have adequate flows and quality water. They suffer when they don’t. The question is how do we get them to survive on less water of poorer quality than they evolved with for thousands of years. The answer appears to be they can’t.”

As the Delta smelt moves closer and closer to extinction in the wild, Governor Newsom, like the California governors before him, has done nothing that stops the smelt’s slide towards extinction. Governor Newsom received a total of $755,198 in donations from agribusiness in 2018, based on the latest data from That figure includes $579,998 in the agriculture donations category, combined with another $116,800 from Beverly Hills agribusiness tycoons Stewart and Lynda Resnick, owners of the Wonderful Company and the largest orchard fruit growers in the world, and $58,400 from E.J. Gallo.