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Delta smelt can't be saved in the wild
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Delta smelt are thriving.

There are thousands upon thousands of them at last count.

So why has the state, in concert with the courts, flushed 1.4 trillion gallons of water through the Delta and ultimately to the Pacific Ocean during the past seven years? In case you are wondering that’s enough water to meet the water needs of 38.4 million Californians for a year. Given there are 38.8 million of us, that is one heck of a lot of water for a fish that’s 2.8 inches in length and lives about a year.

Those thousands of Delta smelt are in a University of California Davis fish hatchery near Byron.

In the Delta, the annual April smelt count came up with one smelt. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife trawl surveys have seen numbers drop drastically since the drought started in 2012 when the count was at 143. The plunge happened despite orders to reduce pumping at Tracy.

So why are the Delta smelt dwindling? The biggest reason is water in the Delta has become too warm, too brackish, and too polluted. That is the scientific justification for flushing 1.4 trillion gallons of water through the Delta at critical times for the Delta smelt since 2008. The water used comes to 4.2 million acre feet or almost enough to fill the state’s largest reservoir — Shasta Dam — to capacity at 4,552,000 acre feet

The water lost to sea may have kept 560,000 acres of farmland from being fallowed this year including tens of thousands of acres of orchards that were ripped out. It also could have gone to another use that environmentalists conveniently forget: helping other fish and birds.

Since it has been declared threatened in 1993 there has not been a reasonable increase in the wild Delta smelt population. You obviously could use every last drop of water in California to bolster the Delta smelt numbers and it won’t have much of an impact.

Yet we continue to use the Delta smelt as the linchpin of Delta water policy that has an impact on more than 60 percent of the state’s population and an even larger share of the farms that are the livelihood for some of California’s poorest families not to mention also feed not just Californians and other Americans but much of the world as well.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

The California Legislature — working in conjunction with Congress — could launch a thoughtful review and implementation strategy to counter the court decisions. Court decisions have been worked around before when laws and regulations are changed or modified. The Delta smelt are not a constitutionally protected class.  They are protected by legislation that environmentalists primarily have used to secure an inordinate amount of California’s water supply to protect.

It is much more convenient for lawmakers to simply point fingers, say the courts have tied their hands, claim the environmental lobby is too powerful, and to use Delta smelt water policy as a vote snaring whipping board during election campaigns. Lawmakers have the power to change things.

By simply coming to grips with the fact the Delta smelt may not survive in the wild on its own with additional water as their only help from man, it opens the door to two options.

The first — and arguably the most difficult — option would be to declare the Delta smelt on its own and let it go extinct in the wild. But no matter how logical that may seem to perhaps almost everyone, environmentalists would perceive that as declaration of war on the Endangered Species Act. From their perspective, you could see why. No matter how strong of a case you can make that saving the Delta smelt in the wild is a lost cause — given critical water it takes not just from urban and farm uses but also the critical needs of riparian ecological systems, other fish and birds— it won’t fly. That’s because environmentalists would fear — and rightfully so — that it would open the door for other efforts to drop endangered species protections that may not have as a severe impact on man’s ability to survive.

The second, and most promising, would be to take Delta smelt hatchery production into overdrive. If researchers can find ways to increase the survival rate of fingerlings in hatcheries then ultimately they could be used to restock the Delta in years when water conditions are most promising. While there are limitations, the long range chances of improving numbers in the wild would increase.

Of course, no one has asked the 1.4 trillion gallon question: If the Delta smelt is so critical to the rest of the Delta’s health, then hasn’t the damage already been done? The numbers in the wild or so low that they aren’t making much of a difference in the 1,100 square miles that compose the Delta.

To address the Delta smelt issue without using stored water would give California an additional reservoir of useable water equivalent to Shasta Lake. It would be done without major environmental intrusion on a Sierra, Cascade, Trinity or Coastal mountains watershed. It would also be done for pennies on the dollar of building a massive reservoir.

It’s time to face reality.

The Delta smelt can’t be saved in the wild using current strategies or even if every drop of California’s water was set aside for their exclusive use.