December 22, 2019

Delta smelt: the tiny fish caught in Californias war with Trump
Harbingers of a diminishing ecosystem, the smelt are almost extinct. Now, forces within the Trump administration could usher them into oblivionOn a warm November morning, John Durand squints over the stern of a small research boat, and gestures toward gray-blue water, and the chaotic tangles of tube-like tule reeds.“Cache Slough right here had been known as a hotspot for delta smelt,” he says. But it’s been four years since Durand and his team of researchers from the University of California, Davis, have found the finger-length fish that gleam golden and “smell kind of like cucumber” in the brackish streams and sloughs of northern California’s bay delta.Does he think we’ll see any today? Durand chuckles and combs his fingers through his white goatee.“It’s funny, because the smelt are a small fish, and now they’re a rare fish, but they still loom large over all our environmental and water policies,” he adds. “It’s a lot to put on a little fish.”For conservationists and ecologists like Durand, the delta smelt are harbingers, their diminishing numbers a signal that the delta’s ecosystem is dangerously close to collapse. For California farmers with thousands of acres to irrigate and millions of dollars on the lines, the smelt are in the way – the state listed the species as endangered in 2009, and in effect constrained how much water can be pulled from the delta.Now, the creatures caught in the crossfire of the state’s water wars have all but disappeared, and biologists worry that newly empowered forces within the Trump administration could usher them into oblivion. A delicate balanceFrom the deck of the research boat, gliding down Cache Slough, it’s easy enough to imagine how the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta used to look – before the Gold Rush, before colonial settlers built their farms and ranches, before they constrained the marsh with levees and cut its flow with dams and diversions, before massive pumps began sucking it dry, before all the infrastructure drove native wildlife to the brink of extinction.Leaning back in the boat, Durand watches his crew of students and research assistants toss a cone-shaped net off the stern, arc through the air and splash into the water. “The whole process is just beautiful,” he says.At the helm, Christopher Jasper, a graduate student, motors forward, dragging the trawl down the slough for five minutes. Then the crew lifts the net up, splashes the contents into a bucket.“All right, what have we got?” Jaspar positions his pen over a clipboard. “American shad, 67mm,” yells Caroline Newell, her indigo hair exploding out of the back of her UC Davis baseball cap. “Oh, you’re looking a little stressed there, buddy,” she says, struggling to lay a flailing Sacramento splittail flat so she can measure it, before tossing it overboard.photo collageOver the course of the day, they count a total of 78 fish, including some native species, like the splittail, and some invasive ones, including a massive catfish. But no smelt.Soon after UC Davis researchers first began sampling in the delta, nearly 40 years ago, the delta smelt populations suffered a huge blow: their numbers had suddenly declined by more than 80%. Their numbers dipped even lower after a period of extended drought in the late 80s and early 90s, then lower still during California’s most recent drought, which lasted from 2012 through 2016. During these dry spells, California’s cities and farms needed to pump more and more delta water – leaving these fish without enough fresh, cold water to survive.Because most Delta smelt live for just one year, even temporary environmental changes can decimate the population. It’s not just the overpumping, but the pumps themselves that have strained the smelt. The smelt are poor swimmers, and they’re drawn to cloudy, turbid patches of water, where they like to hide and feed. The trouble is, the behemoth pumps run by the state and federal government, which can draw up to 10,000 and 5,500 cubic feet of water per second, respectively, can cause rivers to run backward, sucking smelt and other fish into their system.In an attempt to engineer their way out of problems borne from an over-engineered ecosystem, the US Bureau of Reclamation built a “fish collection facility” a couple of miles north of the pumps. Fish headed toward the machinery are corralled with nets and redirected to collection tanks, where they’re catalogued before being trucked back into other parts of the estuary.“The problem is, while they’re going through that system of canals, or waiting in a truck, they’re exposed to all these other fish, all these predators that are happily snacking on them the whole time,” says Jon Rosenfield, a fish biologist at San Francisco Baykeeper, an environmental watchdog group.Those that make it through the labyrinth, face hordes of bass who swarm the spots where trucks release their bounty. “It’s like the bass have been trained to show up at certain times to feed,” Rosenfield says. And after all of that, the smelt may still die from the stress of the whole ordeal, or they may get caught up in the pumps again – rinse and repeat. A 2012 study found that the whole system was, ultimately, inefficient, though the reclamation bureau says the program has been tweaked to separate predators and make the experience more comfortable for the fish.All the while, Delta smelt have also been coping with the encroachment of invasive species. Invasive overbite clams and Asian clams have been leaving the smelt with less to eat. The striped bass and largemouth bass are invaders, as are Mississippi silversides, which feed on smelt eggs and young – though scientists have contested that these predators are responsible for smelt declines.Underlying many of these issues is the climate crisis, which has fueled extended periods of drought and heat waves that have made the waters uncomfortably warm for smelt, and other species struggling to survive in a shifting Delta ecosystem.It’s unclear how many smelt are left in the estuary. The last time the UC Davis researchers caught one was in 2016. Surveyors from the California fish and wildlife department netted two in 2017, and none since. Based on data collected in early 2017, US Fish and Wildlife extrapolated that about 48,000 were still surfing the sloughs, but researchers say it’s unclear how many Delta smelt still exist in the wild. “I’d guess at least a thousand or more, but we have no way of actually knowing,” Durand says. “At this point, they barely register in the ecosystem.”So, why do they still get so many Californians so riled up? Water warsEven Donald Trump has an opinion on the Delta smelt. At a March 2016 campaign rally in Fresno, California – in the state’s agricultural heartland – then presidential candidate Trump mocked the environmentalists who were desperate “to protect a certain kind of three-inch fish”.“They have farms here and they don’t get water,” he said, as the crowd, holding up green “Farmers for Trump” signs booed. “It is so ridiculous they’re taking the water and shoving it out to sea.” That night, Trump promised the farmers more water. Ever since then, his administration has been making moves to make good on that pledge.Last fall, Trump signed a memorandum directing federal agencies to review and roll back environmental standards slowing down the flow of water to farms in the central valley. In February this year, the president nominated David Bernhardt to serve as his interior secretary.Prior to joining the administration, Bernhardt worked as a lobbyist and lawyer for the Westlands Water District, the nation’s largest agricultural water contractor. The agency serves some of California’s wealthiest, most powerful farmers – delivering up to 1.19m acre-feet of irrigation water from the delta each year.In 2014, Bernhardt represented Westlands in an appeals case challenging Endangered Species Act protections for Delta smelt. Upon taking office, he named the water district in his ethics recusal letter, promising not to “participate personally and substantially” in policy issues that could affect his former clients, unless he obtained a waiver.Watchdog groups say Bernhardt hasn’t quite kept his word. Even as he oversaw a board effort to weaken Endangered Species Act protections to ease conditions for the oil and logging industries, he delivered a huge victory to Westlands, rolling back protections for the Delta smelt and the endangered Chinook salmon and paving the way for more pumping.When scientists from the marine fisheries service in July submitted a thousand-page report warning that more pumping would jeopardize several species including endangered winter-run Chinook salmon and the Southern Resident killer whales that eat salmon, the Interior Department pulled the document.New reports, called biological opinions, released in October and overseen by the department’s Fish and Wildlife Service found that the salmon wouldn’t be imperiled, and a separate Delta smelt opinion similarly concluded that the fish would be just fine. The agency touted “smarter delta operations through real-time adaptive management and greater management oversight of delta pumping operations informed by updated science,” to help the smelt and other endangered species recover even as the mammoth state and federal pumps drained more water out of the ecosystem.On Thursday, the Trump administration released its final environmental impact statement on the pumping plan, which claims to manage water in an “environmentally and economically sound manner”.That’s much easier said than done, Rosenfield says. “The ‘real-time management’ part especially has some huge air quotes around it.” The idea is that federal scientists will monitor the water, and signal for the pumps to be turned down. But it’s pretty hard to know where exactly the smelt are – after all, they’ve eluded researchers for years.“It’s ecological sampling – not surveillance,” Rosenfield says. “They don’t have little ankle bracelets on them, we can’t track every single fish.”Even if they could, turning down the pumps isn’t quite as easy as shutting off a faucet. The multi-story state and federal pumping plants operate in tandem and are powerful enough to make rivers flow backward. By the time the two agencies coordinate with each other and taper down the pumping, “these fish are already dying”, Rosenfield says.Paul Souza, the US Fish and Wildlife official who oversaw the drafting of the biological opinions, says, “there’s absolutely no connection” between Bernhardt’s past work with Westlands and the results presented in the biological opinion. He and other officials who drafted the reports “are career professionals,” Souza said in a statement to the Guardian. “We have led this effort with our teams over the past year and this is a career conservation professional documentation.”Westlands contests that the biological opinion benefits them in any way. “I’m not sure that the new biological opinions will produce a single drop of additional water for Westlands,” says Tom Birmingham, the agency’s general manager. “What the new biological opinions do is provide a degree of operational flexibility,” he says, allowing the pumps to take more water when more is available.“I have confidence in the ability of the agencies to conduct real-time monitoring, and to adjust operations of the project based on real-time monitoring,” he says, noting that federal and state operations are already using these techniques to scan the estuary for turbid conditions that could attract smelt.Shortly after the new biological opinions were released, Westlands concluded negotiations to permanently lock in its water service contract, which entitles them to 1.15m acre-feet of water per year – about twice what the city of Los Angeles uses annually. Birmingham points out that the provision to convert its contract is courtesy of a 2016 law, which was approved by a bipartisan Congress and signed into law by Barack Obama.Westlands, he says, is being unfairly antagonized by environmental groups. “I read the criticisms of the new biological opinions,” he says. “And I have to ask myself, have the people expressing those criticisms read the same document?” California fighting wordsBack on the research boat, as an afternoon of sampling winds down, and the weather warms and mellows and stills, it’s impossible not to notice the spicy scent of dung and fertilizer in the air. Durand points at a group of cows, sleepily grazing and dumping at the banks of Cache Slough. “As biologists, we call those ecosystem inputs,” he says with a laugh. Dung from these cows, and runoff from the nut orchards and fruit farms a few yards inland infuse nutrients into the water that triggers algal blooms. Sometimes, too many nutrients in the water cause plants and algae to overgrow, die and drain the system of oxygen. But this time of year, the system could use a bit of nutrient infusion to feed the delta’s fish.Agriculture and nature can work together, Durand says, so long as people are willing to let them. “Everybody wants to be the good guy, and do right by the environment,” he says. “I believe that, having talked to some of the local farmers and ranchers in this area.”The trouble is, once environmental groups and government officials start talking about reallocating water rights and rationing, “those are triggers, those are fighting words in California,” he says. “Revolutions are expensive, I guess, and no one wants to be the one to pay for them.”In response to the federal government’s chipping away of protections for endangered fish, environmental and fishing industry groups have banded together to sue the federal government, as well, alleging that fewer protections for smelt, steelhead trout, and Chinook salmon will devastate the delta ecosystem and commercial fisheries will be the collateral.California’s state government has joined the morass as well: California’s governor Gavin Newsom declared that the state is drafting litigation as well. “As stewards of this state’s remarkable natural resources, we must do everything in our power to protect them,” Newsom announced. “The next generations of Californians deserve nothing less.”In response, the federal reclamation commissioner Brenda Burman derided Newsom’s preference “to have judges dictate these important projects instead of the career professionals at the federal and state levels who have developed a plan based on the best science and significant input from the public.” If Californians want a legal fight, she said in a statement to the Guardian, “that’s their choice, we’ll see them in court”.Westlands has reportedly threatened to walk away from state efforts to broker water-sharing deals if Newsom sues.It could take years for the full effects of the new policy and litigation to become apparent. “In the meantime, know what’s ironic?” says Rosenfield. “Even if the smelt disappeared, and we no longer had to worry about protecting them, it’s not like we could get much more water out of the system.”A 2019 study by Rosenfield and his colleagues at the San Francisco Bay Institute and the Nature Conservancy found that the amount of water the pumps could pull was most often limited by the need to keep saltwater at bay. If enough fresh water isn’t, to paraphrase Donald Trump, shoved out to sea, the sea will shove into shore, flooding the estuary with salt water. “And, no one wants salt water,” Rosenfield says. “You cannot apply saltwater to farmland. That’s what the Romans did to punish their enemies.” In most years between 2011 and 2018 – at peak drought – maintenance issues, and a lack of storage capacity limited pumping more than the smelt did, as did protections for other threatened and endangered fish. “The smelt are just a scapegoat,” Rosenfield says.Durand says he’s sick of talking about Delta smelt. “At the end of the day, sure, it’s just a crummy little fish and there aren’t a lot of them left,” he says. “But then, every time we lose a species it’s just a sign that there are more losses to come.”If the Delta smelt go, California may be able to pump some more. But then their cousins, the longfin smelt, could disappear next, and then the steelhead trout, and then the various populations of Chinook salmon. “Where do we draw the line?” Durand says. “I don’t know how much more stress the system can take.”
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