Delta smelt: 9th Circuit decision protects people as much as fish
By Trip Van Noppen and Barbara Barrigan-Parilla
Special to the Mercury News
Californians who care about a sustainable water future got a big court victory in March that upholds protections for a much-maligned little animal: the delta smelt.
The ruling handed down by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals keeps in place science-based guidelines for managing water flows through the Delta at levels that protect the imperiled fish and help to restore the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta ecosystem.
This victory isn’t really about the fish, however. The smelt are an indicator species, a canary in the coal mine whose health illustrates the overall well-being of the Bay Delta.
The tiny fish native to the Delta once thrived, but due to over-pumping of fresh water, largely for industrial-scale agriculture, it is teetering on the edge of extinction.
Many other species that rely on freshwater in the Delta, such as salmon, a $1.4 billion industry, have declined alongside their little silver cousins. Our efforts to improve flows through the Delta for the smelt have beneficial effects on the entire ecosystem and the complex web of life it supports.
That web includes people like 30-year-old Brett Baker, a sixth generation farmer and father of two who grows pears on his family’s land outside of Courtland.
It includes Karen Cunningham, a delta rancher who has seen her neighbor sell off a third of his herd due to the drought-induced high feed prices and who fears any further water grab from the Delta will kill her grazing land.
It includes Jim Jones, a recreational fisherman who stood alongside local fishing groups, tackle shops and river guides calling for the closure of the Gold River to protect the spawning salmon imperiled by the drought, even though the decline in business would threaten their livelihoods.
This court decision is good news for a region that has been hard-hit by the demands of a few thirsty agricultural mega-corporations that pump two-thirds of the fresh water out of the Delta annually.
But it won’t change the fact that there’s just not a whole lot of freshwater coming down from the mountains and flowing through the smelt’s habitat. People and creatures that rely on fresh water from the Delta will just have to make do with what little there is this year.
Some mega growers in the Westlands Water District and the Kern County Water Agency won’t accept that fact.
From 2000 through 2009, these two agri-business water districts used 10 percent more water than the two largest urban water districts in Southern California and Silicon Valley, even though these agribusiness units contribute only .3 percent to California’s economy.
Corporate farmers who’ve seen their fields dry up and their profits diminish this year lay the blame squarely at the fins of what Fresno Republican Congressman David Nunes derides as “stupid little fish.” As their demands for more water have been rebuffed, they cry that it is a case of choosing fish over people.
This couldn’t be more contrary to the truth. More than 4 million people call the Delta region home. In the midst of the worst drought on record, we cannot hand over a disproportionate share of the state’s water to heavily-subsidized corporate farms at the expense of the Bay-Delta, its unique species, and all of the communities and businesses it supports.
The delta smelt decision doesn’t just protect a fish so tiny it’s not even used as bait. It protects people and their very way of life.
Trip Van Noppen is the president of Earthjustice, and Barbara Barrigan-Parilla is the executive director of Restore the Delta, a non-profit public outreach organization based in Stockton. They wrote this for this newspaper.
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