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?

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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.

But not all who vilify the smelt are ignorant or misled. John McManus, executive director of the Golden Gate Salmon Association, a group that lobbies for conservation of Central Valley Chinook salmon habitat, contends that many anti-smelt crusaders know exactly what they're doing. Including Chinook salmon in the discussion about delta water supplies would only undermine their argument, he said, because the general public tends to sympathize with and respect salmon.

"They're ignoring the truth to create a perception that the smelt is the root of their problems [in the San Joaquin Valley farming regions]," McManus argued. "They recognize that the delta smelt is a small unfamiliar species with basically no commercial value and very few friends. There aren't jobs tied to delta smelt the way there are with salmon, which makes the delta smelt a much easier target. On the other side of salmon, there are workers, jobs, an industry."

The state's salmon fishing industry supports thousands of jobs, according to Jeffrey Michael, an economist at the University of the Pacific in Stockton. He also estimated that the in-Delta farming industry — which has benefited from the water pumping restrictions because the restrictions have protected freshwater supplies for in-Delta agriculture — is worth roughly $1.6 billion.

Moreover, even if environmental laws that limit water exports from the delta were eliminated, farmers could not pump every last drop of water from the estuary. That's because freshwater must be allowed to flow downstream to keep saltwater from encroaching inland.

"This basic salinity control is necessary for the state and federal water projects to pump any water at all," Poole explained.


Salinity control, in fact, is one of the main limiting constraints on water exports. According to data from The Bay Institute, in the 2013-14 water year, from October 1, 2013 to September 20, 2014, 72 percent of the river water that flowed into San Francisco Bay — equal to 26 percent of the total Central Valley runoff that year — was used, and necessary, to prevent seawater from reaching the major water export pumps, a serious threat in times of drought.

"When you hear people complain about water being lost to sea, very little of that water is actually delta smelt water," said Peter Moyle, a fisheries biologist at UC Davis. "Most of it is water that is needed to maintain freshwater in the delta and, and also to protect the pumps [that supply the San Joaquin Valley] themselves."

The delta sits more or less at sea level, which means that saltwater from the ocean has the potential to move inland as far as gravity will allow (all the way past the delta at high tide) — if that physical space was not occupied by freshwater. Only the constant movement of freshwater down the Sacramento River and through the delta keeps the saltwater out. So, to protect irrigation pumps, managers of the state's water supply constantly monitor river flows to make sure enough freshwater is moving through the delta and into San Pablo and San Francisco bays.

Moyle believes that those who rant about the smelt — or even other fish — receiving freshwater at a time when the San Joaquin Valley is suffering simply don't understand how the state's water conveyance system works. For example, Cooke of the National Review, has argued that water that's allowed to flow past the pumps and into the sea is "wasted forever."

"They're mad about not having enough water, and ... not recognizing that the water they're getting depends in part on the water flowing out to sea keeping their water fresh," Moyle said.

In fact, because of the threat of saltwater fouling the southern delta pumps that supply San Joaquin Valley farmers and millions of urban dwellers, the state government recently built a temporary barrier on the West False River to prevent salinity intrusion. Doug Carlson, a spokesperson for the California Department of Water Resources, told me that freshwater outflow will still be needed to keep saltwater out of the delta, but the barrier, he said, should reduce the amount of freshwater needed.

Governor Jerry Brown's controversial plan to build two giant tunnels underneath the delta tunnels would solve the problem of saltwater intrusion — but only for San Joaquin Valley agribusinesses. Since the intakes for the tunnels would divert freshwater from the Sacramento River itself, the system would no longer be threatened by saltwater. However, Delta farmers fear that freshwater diversions through the tunnels will leave the delta too salty. Brown is attempting to steer the project past voters, who rejected a similar plan in the early 1980s. Tunnel opponents say the twin tubes, if built, will destroy Delta communities, farmland, and fisheries.

Current laws strictly protect the quality of delta water. But seawater does sometimes move inland during exceptionally low-flow periods, like the current drought. This year, saltwater fish species, such as leopard sharks and bat rays, have been seen in waters near Antioch in Eastern Contra Costa County — much farther inland than they would occur under normal conditions. Several years ago, at least one open ocean thresher shark was reportedly caught near Antioch during a time of exceptionally high salinity.

For Delta-area farmers, this intrusion of seawater has direct economic impacts. Brett Baker, a sixth-generation pear farmer on Sutter Island, said local gauges have indicated high salinity levels in the delta with increasing frequency in the past fifteen years. Baker said he must temporarily halt irrigation during such periods. In short, Delta farmers like Baker depend on freshwater being allowed to flow out to sea.

Baker, who grew up fishing recreationally for salmon in the ocean, said he is outraged when the delta smelt is portrayed as the sole beneficiary of freshwater that is left in the estuary. "It infuriates me," he said. "This isn't about smelt. The smelt is a scapegoat."

Baker feels the deep-rooted cultural relevance of the salmon and the thousands of fishing industry jobs that the species supports are why agribusiness interests refuse to acknowledge the iconic fish when talking about water supply and farming.

So, Baker argued, the only fish they dare mention is the smelt. "It's like a broken record — them saying the delta smelt is ruining people's lives," Baker said. "... [A]nd who's going to stand up for the smelt? Maybe a few scientists and environmentalists."


The delta smelt, once one of the most abundant fish species in the delta, is actually extremely valuable. That's because the little fish lives its entire one-year life cycle in the delta, making it a key environmental-indicator species. By contrast, salmon spend most of their lives at sea and thus may experience population dips because of ocean-related factors.

"The delta smelt is by far the most sensitive fish in the [delta] system," Moyle said. "It's endemic to the estuary, doesn't live anywhere else, and it requires a functioning estuary to exist. It is the one species that is affected the most by changes to the system."

And the system clearly is changing. Since the 1970s, the delta smelt's population has been dropping. Annual surveys conducted by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife used to find hundreds of the fish through a four-month period. But over time, the results of the trawl net surveys have diminished significantly. A series of outings last fall produced just a handful of individuals, and a dragnet survey in April landed just one smelt. Populations of several other native fish species, including Chinook salmon, have also plunged.

Moyle said the long-term decline of fish numbers in the delta correlates strongly with a long-term increase in freshwater exports from the estuary. The delta's major pumping stations, which were installed in the 1950s and 1960s, kill salmon, smelt, and other fish by crushing them against mesh fish screens. Fish also are killed indirectly when the draw of the pumps reverses river flows, confusing fish and diverting them off their migration paths.

Although farming interests have claimed that an unfair amount of water is being sacrificed to the environment and that farmers have lost their water allocations as a result, this doesn't accurately characterize the past five decades. In the 1960s, after the delta pumps opened, water diversions from the estuary were about 1.5 million acre-feet a year. But by the 1970s, water exports though the pumps had grown to about 4.5 million-acre feet annually. And by the 1980s, the pumps were sucking up 5.5 million acre-feet. In the early 2000s, water exports amounted to more than 6 million-acre-feet in several record years. Six million acre-feet is about enough water to fill a hollowed out skyscraper that is 1,000 miles tall.

This massive diversion of freshwater from the ecosystem has mostly supported the growth of orchards in the San Joaquin Valley, where almond and other nut farmers are planting millions of trees each year — even in the midst of drought. Meanwhile, the Sacramento River's once bounteous salmon runs are clinging to life. In 2014, the year that almond farmers scored a harvest of 1.8 billion pounds, the Sacramento's Chinook salmon experienced an almost complete spawning failure, due to a lack of freshwater and an allocation system that prioritizes farms over native fish.

An estimated 95 percent of the eggs laid by the Sacramento River's wild winter-run Chinook salmon were killed last fall. Officials with fishery and water agencies said recently that they expect mortality rates to be just as bad or worse this year. With wild salmon runs teetering on the brink of extinction, the state's salmon fishing industry exists mostly thanks to hatcheries, which artificially sustain the population.

Nonetheless, the agriculture lobby continues to insist that water diversions to the arid San Joaquin Valley have not impacted fish populations. Instead, according to mainstream and conservative media and politicians, fish are stealing water from ailing farmers. "Farmers always suffer the most, urban users a little bit less, and the environment even less," wrote Manteca Bulletin columnist Dennis Wyatt in a January 2014 piece. Wyatt claimed that the delta smelt "astronomically hogs more of California's fresh stored water than Los Angeles or massive farms in the southern San Joaquin Valley."

Congressmember Devin Nunes, R-Tulare, who has lobbied for farming interests in the San Joaquin Valley, also argues that people are being deprived of water as state officials attempt to restore fish populations. "We have starved families, communities, and increasingly the state's entire population of water, and a lot of these policies are aimed at protecting two types of fish — the salmon and the delta smelt," he stated in a written statement in response to questions that I posed.

"That's just not true," said Bill Jennings, executive director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance. According to Jennings, who keeps close tabs on California's water systems, delta water exports are projected to be more than nine times greater this water year than the water volume being used to meet regulatory requirements for salmon. (No water has been mandated for smelt.) Jennings said 19 percent of the Central Valley's runoff will be diverted through the southern delta pumps. Although 19 percent is a big piece of the pie, the total runoff for the year is severely diminished, thanks to low reservoir supplies and a blanket-thin snowpack. As a result, many farmers will surely go thirsty this summer.

But no matter how loudly they complain, there simply isn't enough water to slake their thirst. Most of the freshwater flowing through the delta and into San Francisco Bay right now is needed to push saltwater back from the irrigation pumps.

"If the folks in the San Joaquin Valley want saltwater, we could solve that problem very easily," Jennings said sarcastically, "but if they want freshwater, it takes a lot to hold it back in the bay."


For all the talk of the economic hardships in the desert farmlands of the San Joaquin Valley, California's agriculture industry is actually doing fairly well. Farm employment decreased by only 2.5 percent from 2014 to 2015, according to data from the California Employment Development Department. And while agribusinesses claim to be devastated by water shortages, acreage of lucrative almond groves continues to grow unchecked.

There were 840,000 acres of mature almond trees in 2013 in California, and 860,000 in 2014. This year, bearing acreage is up to 890,000, according to the US Department of Agriculture. Many farmers have been cut off from their surface water deliveries, but they have subsisted by using groundwater, a public resource that California law doesn't regulate.

By contrast, salmon fishermen expect hard times in coming years, because of the 2014 spawning failure and the likelihood of high mortality this fall. Meanwhile, the smelt might be extinct in the wild within just a year or two. Finley, of The Wall Street Journal, recently mocked the little fish's looming fate, apparently unaware or unconcerned that the fall of the smelt signals the collapse of the entire estuary. Finley has noted that smelt are being reared in captivity as an effort to keep the species from vanishing from the Earth. "Long live the smelt," she wrote in her April column.

But Moyle pointed out that losing the smelt could actually be problematic for the agribusiness interests that depend on it as a scapegoat — as a propaganda leverage point.

"If the delta smelt goes under, we have other fish that will be harder for them to argue are worthless," Moyle said. "We have steelhead, sturgeon, and salmon. Those kinds of fish people care much more about. Who's going to come forward and say we don't need salmon?"

Actually, in April, Jim Jasper, an almond farmer in the San Joaquin Valley town of Newman, did just that, telling me that the world would still have farmed salmon if wild California salmon vanished. Jasper was arguing for lifting protections for endangered species so that the almond industry would have even more room to grow.

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