View Mobile Site

Ask the Expert

Signal Photos


Small fish causes big problems in the delta

Posted: May 30, 2009 1:57 p.m.
Updated: May 30, 2009 1:57 p.m.
A small fish native to the Sacramento Delta is causing water restrictions and driving state water-project officials crazy.

The delta smelt is endemic to the Sacramento Delta. The fish, which measures about 3 inches in length, makes its  home in the same place from which a large portion of the state draws its water supply, said Dan Masnada, Castaic Lake Water Agency general manager.

The smelt lives at the bottom of the food chain in the delta where they wield a lot of influence over water policy in the state, Masnada said.

“They are the canary in the coal mine for the delta,” he said. “If that species goes extinct, people question whether it’s the domino that takes down the other species.”

Besides being a major food source for other fish, the smelt also provide a measure of the health of the ecosystem, said John Beuttler, Conservation Director for the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance.

The smelt’s place in the food chain and its status as a metric for ecosystem’s health prompted U.S. District Court Judge Oliver Wanger to protect the smelt in 2008 by further reducing the already diminished allocation of delta water pumped by the State Water Project to Southern California, Masnada said.

Wanger’s decision protected the smelt from being sucked into the pumps drawing water from the delta, a common occurrence prior to the new pumping regulations, Beuttler said.

As a result of Wanger’s ruling, “Our allocation is about 30 percent of our contracted amount,” he said. The Castaic Lake Water Agency is contracted to receive 95,200 acre feet annually, which it sells to the water retailers in the SCV.

The Castaic Lake Water Agency state water allocation makes up 50 percent of the water used by Santa Clarita Valley residents. The agency’s full allotment is enough to supply each home in the Santa Clarita Valley for a year. A full allocation was last reached in 2006. Since then, drought restrictions reduced the allocation by more than half, Masnada said. The further reduction caused by the Wanger decision took an additional 5 to 10 percent of Castaic Lake Water Agency’s contracted amount, leaving about 30,000 acre feet to sell to retailers in the SCV, he said.

The allocation reductions prompted by drought and the impact on local fish should come as no surprise, Beuttler said.

“All the contracts issued in the State Water Project were conditioned on maintaining a healthy delta,” he said. In short, the state water contractors are not allowed to pump too much water as to adversely impact the delta, Beuttler added.

Masnada isn’t sure that relaxing the pumping of the delta will save the smelt.

Climate change, which causes the sea level to rise and increases salinity in the delta, threatens the smelt as well, Masnada said.

The smelt live in a very specific level of salinity and don’t tolerate changes to those salt levels, he said.

Agricultural water diversion threatens the smelt by forcing the fish into diversion canals where they are easy targets for predator fish, he said.

All these additional threats to the smelt force Masnada to ask whether pumping the delta is really driving the fish to the brink of extinction.

“The question I have is would (the smelt) survive with the other stressors,” Masnada said.

The answer to saving the smelt might be a peripheral canal diverting water from the mouth of the Sacramento River around the delta and directly into the California aqueduct.   

The peripheral canal is a win-win for the smelt and the state water project, Masnada said.

“The water would be taken from the delta east of where the smelt live and they wouldn’t get sucked up in the pumps,” he said. A peripheral canal would end the pumping of high-chloride water from the southern portion of the delta. Those chloride levels prompted the Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts to seek a rate increase to pay for a $250 million treatment plant designed to lower the salt levels in the water discharged in the Santa Clara River, he said.

“The peripheral canal only works if the pumping from the southern portion of the delta stops. If we pump from both ends of the delta, we are still over-pumping the delta and negatively impacting the fish,” Beuttler said.

However, the likelihood of a peripheral canal being built anytime soon is slim, Masnada said. “If it happens in 15 years, that would be more optimistic than realistic,” he said.

California is spending $140 million on studying what solutions would work for all the stakeholders in the delta. By the end of the study, Masnada expects the solution presented will be the peripheral canal.


Most Popular Articles

There are no articles at this time.
Commenting not available.
Commenting is not available.


Powered By
Morris Technology
Please wait ...