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PD Editorial: No more red herrings in water talks

The delta smelt is an easy target.

It’s small, no more than 3 inches long, and has no unusual features. Few people ever see one. Even anglers aren’t interested in this tiny fish native to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and protected by state and federal endangered species laws.

That makes it a great target in the PR wars over California water.

Central Valley growers and their allies rarely miss an opportunity to blame their water woes on the smelt and to disparage the very notion of protecting it from extinction.

Substitute “salmon” for “smelt” and try making the case for giving up on an endangered species to secure a water supply for growers who switched from crops like lettuce and tomatoes that can be fallowed in times of drought to almond orchards that need continuous irrigation.

You can see why the growers and their allies talk almost exclusively about smelt.

The smelt is a marker species, a barometer of the health of the Delta, the largest estuary on the West Coast of the Americas and the backbone of the sport and commercial salmon fishing industry in Northern California, Oregon and Washington. State officials say the smelt population is at its lowest level in 50 years of monitoring, and stakeholders are bracing for weak salmon numbers after three drought years.

“Without a healthy Bay-Delta system, there is no salmon fishing,” said Barry Nelson of the Golden Gate Salmon Association.

Fortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court didn’t bite on the smelt vs. farmers argument. Last week, the justices rejected an appeal from the Westlands and Metropolitan water districts, among others, seeking to overturn limits on pumping water from the Delta into canals serving Central Valley growers and Southern California cities.

Those limits were put in place to protect the smelt as well as several species of salmon that migrate through the Delta on a round-trip between their spawning grounds in Northern California and the Pacific Ocean.

The pumping limits withstood scrutiny from the National Academy of Sciences and the federal courts, but look for a yet another challenge in the new Congress.

House members from the Central Valley are again sponsoring legislation to waive the Endangered Species Act as it relates to the delta smelt.

But the problem isn’t a tiny endangered fish. It’s a lack of water as the state enters what’s shaping up as a fourth drought year. The Sierra snowpack, the primary source of water for the Delta and the delivery system serving the Central Valley and Southern California, is just 36 percent of normal. There hasn’t been any significant precipitation in the past month, and there is none in the forecast.

A competing bill, co-sponsored by Democrats Mike Thompson and Jared Huffman as well as several other House members from Northern and Southern California, offers a more productive response to the water shortage.

Their bill would create a secured loan program and grants for water recycling, groundwater management and water infrastructure projects. It also would modernize water supply operations at dams managed by the Army Corps of Engineers and promote drought coordination at the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Agriculture and Department of Interior.

Last year, most of the congressional action took place behind closed doors, with only Sen. Dianne Feinstein and the Central Valley congressmen at the table. This year, the process needs to come out into the open.

The Huffman-Thompson bill deserves a fair hearing. Let’s hope it doesn’t get drowned in unfounded claims about the delta smelt.

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