Thursday, February 03, 2011

The Delta Smelt

More than you probably wanted to know about the small fish that is playing such a large role in the ability of California to transfer water from the wet northern part of the state to the dry middle and southern parts, from the Los Angeles Times.

An excerpt.

“When Peter Moyle began studying an obscure little Northern California fish in the early 1970s, he had no inkling of the role it would come to play in the state.

“No one had paid much attention to the delta smelt. "They were just there," recalled Moyle, then an assistant professor at UC Davis in need of a research topic. "We knew nothing about it."

“Nearly four decades later, the delta smelt is arguably the most powerful player in California water. Its movements rule the pumping operations of the state's biggest water projects in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Efforts to stave off its demise have at times reduced water deliveries to 25 million people and 2 million acres of farmland, magnifying the impact of the recent drought and forcing farmers to fallow fields. Politicians harangue it and maneuver to gut the regulations that protect it.

“Why all the fuss over a puny creature — streaked in steely blue, redolent of cucumbers and no bigger than a woman's little finger — that Central Valley congressmen and Fox News broadcasters belittle as a worthless bait fish and "a 2-inch minnow"? Why not just crank up the pumps and forget the thing?

“Moyle, whose work helped earn the delta smelt a spot on the federal endangered species list in 1993, is philosophical at first: The American people have decided that we should not wipe species after species off the face of the Earth.

“Then he gets more pragmatic. "If the delta smelt goes away, it's not going to solve the problem" of California's dependence on the ailing delta for a good measure of its water, Moyle said. He reels off a list of prized fish that use the delta and are also in trouble, such as chinook salmon and green sturgeon. Help the smelt, he says, and we help them.

“Bill Bennett is a former graduate student of Moyle's who picked up his mentor's research baton and passion for delta smelt. He champions Hypomesus transpacificus as a unique native whose fate is entwined with that of the West Coast's largest estuary.

“Drive the delta smelt and other natives into oblivion, he warns, and we will wind up with "the McDonalds and Wal-Mart version of California," overrun with generic species from elsewhere. "I think people appreciate the real California rather than something they can get everywhere."