Cranston and Miller Enter Battle Over Fate of Delta Smelt


A powerful Northern California congressman and Sen. Alan Cranston have joined the fray over the tiny delta smelt in what could turn into a major battle over the creature’s fate and the Endangered Species Act.

In separate letters, Cranston and Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez) called on Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan Jr. to decide whether to give the delta smelt Endangered Species Act protection without regard to the mounting political pressure.

Miller and Cranston wrote to Lujan late last week after the Assn. of California Water Agencies began seeking support from California congressional members for a letter of its own to Lujan opposing protection for the delta smelt.


The missives appear to be opening volleys in a fight over one of this state’s most contentious environmental issues--shipments of Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta water to urban and agricultural users.

“Mr. Secretary, in no way can endangered species status be accorded to the delta smelt upon existing data,” declared the water agencies’ proposed letter.

The letter urges that Lujan initiate further studies of the fish. Fisheries biologists asked that it be given Endangered Species Act protection because its population fell from 2 million to the current number of 100,000 to 300,000 during the past decade.

The association is asking Lujan to side with the state Fish and Game Commission, which rejected a proposal last August that the smelt be listed as threatened under state law until more studies are done.

Brad Shinn, manager of federal affairs for the association, said he visited several California representatives seeking support, but that Miller, a strong environmentalist, was not among them. So far, no members of the delegation have signed the water agencies’ letter.

“Clearly, this is an attempt to discourage members from signing what is a fairly innocuous letter,” Shinn said of the letters from Miller and Cranston.

Chinook salmon, striped bass and some other species that use delta waters also declined in the 1980s. But the delta smelt would be the first species that lives solely in the delta to gain Endangered Species Act protection. A listing would make it illegal to harm the fish or its habitat.

Biologists and environmentalists who advocate protections for the delta smelt place much of the blame for the fish’s decline on water shipments from the delta. They contend that smelt are sucked up by huge state and federal water project pumps, and have died because water diversions alter their favored habitat.

State and local officials responsible for providing water to Californians fear that if the delta smelt is declared threatened or endangered, the amount of water pumped from the delta could be sharply reduced.

In his letter dated June 13, Miller acknowledged that a decision to protect the smelt could force reductions in shipments of water from the delta. But he urged that the decision be based on “a study that is scientifically valid and untainted by political interference.”

“I very much hope that no such efforts to taint the current scientific study are occurring, and that any such interference will be resisted vigorously by the (U.S. Fish and Wildlife) Service and the Department of the Interior,” Miller wrote.

Miller is chairman of the House Interior Committee, which has jurisdiction over Interior Department agencies, including the Fish and Wildlife Service. The service is scheduled to issue its recommendation to Lujan on June 29.

“It is imperative that the Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision on the delta smelt be based on valid, objective scientific studies,” Cranston said in his letter.

In the past, congressional investigations and litigation have resulted when the federal government failed to protect species thought to be declining. One such suit resulted in a federal court order directing that the government list the Northern spotted owl as a threatened species in 1988.