The Drought's Scapegoat 

Mainstream and conservative media and politicians have wrongly blamed the tiny delta smelt for causing water cutbacks for agriculture during the drought. Why?


In April, The Wall Street Journal published a news column that reduced the complicated story of California water, drought, fish, and farmers into a simplified stream of vitriol directed at a tiny fish: the delta smelt. The author of the piece, columnist Allysia Finley, called the finger-sized endangered species "the cause célèbre of environmentalists and bête noire of parched farmers." The delta smelt, Finley argued, is the cause of grief and pain for farmers in the San Joaquin Valley because laws protecting the fish have at times restricted the flow of water to orchards and fields.

Indeed, the delta smelt has become perhaps the number-one scapegoat during California's historic drought — the favored whipping boy of the state's powerful agricultural interests. Those interests have alleged repeatedly that environmental laws designed to save the smelt from extinction are putting San Joaquin Valley farmers out of business.

But Big Ag, along with mainstream and conservative news organizations and politicians, fail to mention a very inconvenient truth: During the drought, the smelt have had nothing to do with water cutbacks from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, the state's primary source of freshwater. Rather, pumping restrictions in the delta during the past two years have instead served to protect the drinking water of millions of Californians and numerous farmers in the Delta region itself. The pumping restrictions are keeping freshwater flowing through the delta so that salty ocean water cannot push too far inland and ruin water supplies. The restrictions also have been triggered by laws that protect a different fish altogether: salmon.

"But of course [the media and others] blame the smelt," said Jon Rosenfield, a conservation biologist with The Bay Institute in San Francisco. "What else could they do — blame salmon and having clean water?" The smelt, he noted, has little social or economic value, unlike other, bigger fish that share the same habitat. Chinook salmon, for instance, support a substantial fishing industry and thousands of jobs. This makes the smelt an ideal scapegoat.

The Wall Street Journal is just one of several news outlets that have jumped on the anti-smelt bandwagon and have erroneously characterized the fish as the main cause for water cutbacks to California's farmers. For years, many news organizations have been telling this story while conspicuously neglecting to mention that there are other social, environmental, and economic benefits in maintaining an ample flow of water through the delta.

Although there have been times when smelt protections, first enforced in 2009, have required curtailing water for irrigation, such a scenario hasn't happened in 27 months. Last December, irrigators reduced consumption to avoid killing fish believed to be near the delta pumps near Tracy, but that was a voluntary action.

Nonetheless, the delta smelt has remained a powerful propaganda tool for corporate farmers in the almond-and-pistachio country of the western San Joaquin Valley, an historically arid zone that now has much to gain by generating public sympathy for growers — and outrage against environmental laws that protect a little fish.

"The delta smelt is not the issue," said Kate Poole, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "But it's a handy scapegoat."

Columns, editorials, and news reports that portray the delta smelt as a water hog have become commonplace in recent years. Writer John C. W. Cooke penned a lengthy story for the National Review in early 2014 featuring the hardships of San Joaquin Valley farmers and ridiculing the smelt as the central cause of their tribulations. Not once in his piece did Cooke mention that there are laws in place to protect Chinook salmon and to keep seawater from tainting the freshwater that millions of people drink — and that these are the laws that have curtailed water deliveries to south-of-Delta farmers in the past two-plus years.

On May 8, Orange County Register columnist Joseph Perkins also erroneously characterized the delta smelt as the chief culprit and "primary stakeholder" in the water-related woes of farmers and Southern Californians. Perkins' piece made no mention of the need for clean water or salmon, or how imposing limits on water exports can protect and enhance these resources. In a February 2014 Sacramento Bee op-ed, writer Ben Boychuk named the delta smelt as the driving force behind regulatory cutbacks on water exports, even though, at the time, one year had passed since laws protecting the smelt had triggered any water pumping restrictions.

And in September 2014, Assemblymember Shannon Grove, R-Bakersfield, released a video concerning the plight of fruit farmers in Kern County, whose water supplies had been cut off. Thousands of their trees were dead, Grove said, because of "a three-inch fish called the delta smelt."

Grove reported that 1.2 million acre-feet of water — enough to irrigate 600,000 acres of farmland — had been flushed into San Francisco Bay that year to protect the smelt, a statement that Steve Martarano of the US Fish and Wildlife Service said is patently false. Martarano said the last time the federal law protecting the little fish impacted water deliveries was February 2013.

"It's become almost comical how one species has been so targeted by the media and how the misinformation spreads," said Martarano. He said the media has failed for years to tell the whole and accurate story about Delta water management, fish, and agriculture. "I'm a former reporter, and I think about how stories get put together. When a writer blames the delta smelt for impacts to farmers, there usually isn't even an attempt to quantify what those impacts are." Worse, he said, the misinformation spreads because other writers use inaccurate stories as source material.

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