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Our biggest water hog is Delta Smelt

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POSTED January 29, 2014 12:59 a.m.

Delta Smelt, the 5- to 7-centimeter fish that tends to hang around the Tracy pumps, is California’s biggest consumer of water.

Ounce for ounce, the endangered fish astronomically hogs more of California’s fresh stored water than Los Angeles or massive farms in the southern San Joaquin Valley.

Just a few years ago, the state was annually diverting a million acre feet of water specifically for the Delta Smelt.

Based on per capita consumption of water by Manteca and Lathrop’s 90,000 residents, that’s enough water to meet the needs of 11.4 million Californians, or just under  a third of the state’s entire population for a year.

It is roughly a fourth of the capacity of the state’s largest reservoir – Shasta Dam – that can hold 4.5 million acre feet when it is filled to the brim.

Water is still flowing to meet the projected needs of the Delta Smelt. All wildlife refuges in California are still receiving their full allotment of 400,000 acres feet of water. Meanwhile, many farms aren’t getting a drop while urban users are facing severe cutbacks.

The Delta Smelt, listed by the state as endangered since 2003, thrives in the Delta estuary where fresh water and salt water mix.

One would draw the conclusion that man has been brutal to the Delta Smelt population.

But without man’s intervention in nature’s movement of water, the Delta Smelt today would be in severe survival mode with numbers substantially thinner.

That’s because Mother Nature, when left to her own devices, would have reduced the Delta to a dried out mud flat with trickles of water where even today in drought conditions fairly mighty rivers flow.

A third year of drought without California’s massive manmade reservoirs and water conveyance system by now would have devastated the Delta and much of the river ecology throughout the state.

Without reservoirs storing the Sierra snowmelt, the Delta in spring and early summer would be a vast marsh. It explains how Spanish explorers who crested Mt. Diablo in 1776 and looked eastward toward  the Sierra saw before them what they described as a great inland sea. Had they reached the summit later in the year around October they would have seen vast dry grasslands.

Today, there is an intricate system of levees bordering 700 miles of waterways. The levees put in place by man starting about 160 years ago created the Delta we know today.

And the massive on-stream storage reservoirs have made it possible to spread out the release of water so the Delta’s natural annual cycles of flood and drought have essentially vanished.

Against that backdrop is the madness caused by the warping of the environmental movement into the environmental perfection movement.

Slam man all you want but he is part of the environment.  Man has both altered and enhanced the environment.

Court rulings that are case specific and legislative remedies that run the gamut from being open ended to overly restrictive have given the environment an advantage over farming and urban users when it comes to water that far exceeds how Mother Nature would treat it in time of drought or flood.

There is no proportional response to unnaturally stored water behind reservoirs  in California. Farmers always suffer the most, urban users a little bit less, and the environment even less.

Federal powers are being asked to relax water releases aimed at restoring San Joaquin River fisheries in a proportional manner to the state’s current drought crisis. Environmental bureaucrats are howling.

Funny, but when influential Wall Street types with big money took advantage of tax incentives by investing in wind power that was killing off protected and endangered species such as the Bald Eagle, the federal bureaucracy rushed to suspend environmental law protection for the nation’s feathered symbol.

But ask that endangered species share in the collective pain of less stored water to distribute to help farmers without Wall Street connections and the same bureaucrats dig their heels in.

The bottom line is simple: In a natural drought with no water storage, the Delta Smelt population would typically be near extinction levels. With stored water, their numbers are still thin but are more robust.

Yes, the Tracy pumps and the California Aqueduct were a big game changer for the Delta Smelt. But a case can be made they are better off today with them than without them.

Cutbacks in the delivery of stored water in California need to include the Delta Smelt and the rest of the environment.



This column is the opinion of executive editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.  He can be contacted at dwyatt@mantecabulletin.com or 209-249-3519.

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