Delta Smelt Designated as Threatened Species


A shiny, finger-sized fish that smells like a cucumber and usually lives only a year was declared a threatened species Thursday by the federal government, heightening concerns about the health of the state’s most important estuary and raising the prospect of vast restrictions on drinking water supplies.

The listing of the delta smelt under the federal Endangered Species Act culminates a four-year effort by environmentalists to save the vanishing fish, which is known to exist only in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, where two-thirds of the state’s drinking water is collected and pumped statewide.

Once the listing becomes official in 30 days, it will be illegal to harm or kill the delta smelt without a permit from the federal government. It also requires the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, working with state and other federal agencies, to devise a recovery plan for the species.

Biologists who have tracked the nearly translucent fish report that it has declined 90% over the past two decades, leaving the population at a historic low level. Although fish-count surveys were up slightly in 1990 and 1991, they dropped precipitously last year. One sampling of 80 delta sites last fall that found only two of the fish.


“This is long overdue,” said UC Davis fisheries biologist Peter Moyle, who first brought the fish’s plight to government attention. “It tells people the delta system is in serious trouble and needs to be fixed.”

In its announcement of the listing in Portland, Ore., the Fish and Wildlife Service suggested the delta smelt’s demise “may be indicative of the relative health” of the delta and San Francisco Bay, whose ecosystems are intrinsically linked. Delta smelt spend most of their lives in the so-called entrapment zone in Suisun Bay, where incoming saltwater from San Francisco Bay mixes with outflowing fresh water from the Sacramento River and its tributaries.

Although a threatened species is considered less imperiled than an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act, biologists said the effect is much the same because both listings immediately protect the species and require a plan for recovery.

While biologists liken the fish’s significance to that of the canary in the coal mine, officials charged with supplying California’s enormous water needs say it has become the aquatic equivalent of the spotted owl.

A study by a group of urban water agencies predicts that the fish’s listing could cost the state tens of thousands of jobs and more than $12 billion in lost business if a recovery plan--which is still in the making--requires cutting water exports from the delta. The projections were based on a permanent 15% to 30% reduction in supplies to industries from the State Water Project, the second-largest delivery system in the state.

“It is easy for the public to say we want a better environment, but ask someone what they care about--this minnow in the delta as it relates to their job, their water rationing and higher costs for less water--and their priorities change pretty quick,” said Jason Peltier, manager of the Central Valley Project Water Assn., which represents contractors of the state’s largest water project.

Operators of the two major California water projects said the listing will not change water supplies to cities and farms this year because water already has been set aside in anticipation of the decision. Because of continued rain and snowfall, state officials said, they will provide 70% of requested supplies--up from 55% just a few weeks ago--and federal operators of the Central Valley Project predicted that they soon will raise their projection of 25% deliveries, possibly to 40%.

But water officials said the delta smelt’s new status puts future supplies in doubt because they expect the fish’s recovery plan to require that large amounts of water remain in the delta, at the expense of urban and agricultural water users.

“It is in effect a pumping restriction,” said David Kennedy of the state Department of Water Resources, which operates the State Water Project.

Officials from the Fish and Wildlife Service said it is too early to know what restrictions might be placed on water exports from the delta, since talks about a recovery plan are ongoing. In announcing the listing, federal officials said they had postponed until this fall a decision on identifying the fish’s critical habitat, a crucial factor in evaluating measures for the long-term recovery of the fish.

In an interview before Thursday’s announcement, however, a biologist for the agency acknowledged that preliminary discussions about the recovery program have focused on water cuts. Biologist Matt Vandenberg said options include limiting the volume of water exported and the time of year exports would be allowed, the latter to protect young fish and larvae from the massive hydrologic pumps.

“Since the delta smelt lives only one year, it would be possible for the pumps to kill off the species in a matter of a year or two,” Vandenberg said. “If that species gets wiped out, it is really saying the delta is going to the dogs.”

Environmentalists dispute water industry predictions of economic gloom and doom, but they acknowledge that protecting the fish could permanently alter California’s water picture. The first indication of the long-term consequences could come next week, when proposed temporary environmental regulations for the delta--crafted with the threatened fish in mind--are to be considered by the State Water Resources Control Board.

“The listing of the delta smelt could be the most important step in restoring the delta,” said David Behar of the Bay Institute of San Francisco, one of several environmental groups that sued the federal government in December to force a decision on the designation. The groups went to court again on Wednesday to apply pressure on Department of Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, who approves all listings, but department officials said the court action did not prompt Thursday’s announcement.

The listing of Hypomesus transpacificus marks the second native delta fish to be designated as threatened by the federal government. The winter-run chinook salmon was listed in 1989, leading to a series of pumping restrictions and other measures to safeguard salmon smolts as they migrate toward the ocean.

The powerful pumps, located at the southern tip of the delta, often reverse the natural fresh-water flows toward the ocean, disorienting the salmon and ultimately killing them. Delta pumping was halted last week after it was determined that too many of the smolts were being rerouted by the pumps.

Biologists anticipate more complex remedies for the delta smelt because it is a year-round resident and depends more heavily on the overall well-being of the estuary. A recent report by the state Department of Fish and Game concluded that the fish is vulnerable to pumping during all stages of its life.

Although the Fish and Wildlife Service focused its blame for the delta smelt’s decline on pumping from the delta, the drought and insufficient flows of freshwater, some biologists have also pointed to other contributors. Since 1986, for example, the fish has had to compete for its primary food source--tiny crustaceans called copepods--with a small Asian clam that made its way into the estuary through the ballast water of cargo ships.

The fish is also a favorite food source of larger fish, particularly striped bass, which have declined in population over recent years but are now being spawned in hatcheries and reintroduced in the Sacramento River and elsewhere.

“The bottom line for me is that we don’t have the right to eliminate a species,” said Moyle, the UC Davis biologist who has tracked the delta smelt for years. “It is a moral issue, especially when we know keeping it around will mean a healthier ecosystem.”