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Canary in the Coal Mine or Baitfish?

"What are the chances that once the smelt issue is fixed that environmentalists won’t find another reason to sue to stop the water flows?"

May 20, 2013

Environmentalists say they believe the Delta Smelt is the canary in the coal mine, a link in the ecological chain of life that must be saved. Or, is it just a fish they can use to promote their agenda? We, of course, believe the latter. Wayne Lusvardi, in a recent CalWatchdog article made the point that "the Delta is still a vibrant eco-system for predator striped bass and ugly bottom feeder catfish. But it is not considered a politically correct ecosystem for pretty and tiny fish that can be sold to the public as “endangered” — salmon, smelt, etc." Steven Greenhut, writing about the Governor's plan to build giant tunnels under the Delta, asks in a Human Events column "what are the chances that once the smelt issue is fixed that environmentalists won’t find another reason to sue to stop the water flows given that the water flows are the source of the real dispute?" We all know the answer to that one. Environmentalists are constantly attempting to add to the endangered species list just in case we succeed in taking something off the list. The Delta Smelt is merely the current justification for denying farmers their water. Here are some other provocative quotes for you to ponder:

August Promnitz: "But the ugly truth of the matter is that this species of fish has developed and evolved no traits by which it can survive. So, nature (if man is included in it) has selected the smelt for extinction. It may sound cruel to allow the smelt to die off, but this is simply natural selection in action."

William Busse: "The value of the Delta smelt? Essentially nothing. Besides serving as bait for attracting larger fish, the Delta smelt is not edible, does not eliminate pests or have any meaningful commercial value. Sometimes, despite environmentalist’s protestations to the contrary, certain species reach a natural evolutionary dead end."

We know Wayne Lusvardi's comments about the striped bass and catfish are true, and certain fish thrive in the Delta and others don't. We also know that scientists are uncertain about what is causing the Delta's problems, as they define them. Scientists call problems in the Delta 'stressors', and have attempted for decades to determine a priority list, but can't come to any agreement. While the debate rages, farmer's water is cut off. We know we are biased in this argument, but somehow it seems prudent to favor farmers over smelt until the argument is resolved. Environmentalists say if we don't do something now, it will be too late for the smelt. As farmers, we also say if we don't do something now it will be too late for us. Choose farmers over baitfish, please.

Delta's Biggest Enemy Hard To Pinpoint

Stockton Record

By Alex Breitler

Record Staff Writer

There are more than 40 potential causes for the Delta's decline, scientists said Friday, but ranking them in order is just too difficult.

"We're not in a position now - we may be in a position later - to say it's these three stressors that are causing 90 percent of the problem, or one stressor causing 45 percent of the problem," said Richard Norgaard, chair of the Delta Independent Science Board, a panel of 10 experts established by California's sweeping water reform in 2009.

"At the present state of knowledge, we just think there's a lot of interacting stressors," Norgaard told the Delta Stewardship Council on Friday.

The result of the board's work so far is not likely to satisfy anyone hungering for immediate answers.

Then-state Assemblywoman Jean Fuller of Bakersfield, now a Republican in the state Senate, requested an "assessment" of the contributing factors in August along with 22 other elected officials.

In particular, Fuller has said she's concerned that predatory alien fish such as striped bass are chowing down on native species, causing their numbers to decline to the point where officials restricted how much Delta water could be sent south to her district.

Many environmentalists, on the other hand, have argued that the millions of acre-feet of water pumped from the Delta each year are the fundamental problem.

But the list of the Delta's many cuts released last week is broad.

Certain "drivers," such as climate change, may exacerbate "stressors" such as sea level rise or diminished water supply, and there's not much local officials can do within the Delta itself to stop that.

Other problems date back decades or longer - the elimination of wetland habitat, the persistence of mercury from the Gold Rush days, upstream dams and invasive species.

Some are happening right now, such as water diversions from upstream tributaries, from within the estuary itself and from the giant pumps near Tracy that supply much of the state and kill fish in the process.

And finally, there are problems still to come, such as continued subsidence or sinking of Delta islands, and the expansion of cities such as Stockton that contribute pollution to the estuary.

Ultimately, the scientists said they could not conclude that any one factor, or any small combination of the 40-plus factors, is the root of the Delta's problems.

While the scientists aren't promising to ultimately rank all of these factors, they said they'll work with the council to say which combination of problems might help meet certain goals.

Members of the Delta Stewardship Council must write a plan by year's end that balances the "co-equal goals" of restoring the estuary's ecosystem while ensuring a reliable water supply for the 25 million Californians who rely on the Delta to some degree. The scientists' evaluation can help shape that plan.

Council member Randy Fiorini, a rancher from Turlock, said it was a "very, very useful report.

"It outlines how complex the issues that we're dealing with are," he said.

Contact reporter Alex Breitler at (209) 546-8295 or abreitler@recordnet.com. Visit his blog at recordnet.com/breitlerblog.

A long list

Scientists say many causes may be contributing to the decline of the Delta:

• Global causes: Climate change (sea level rise, changes in water flows, higher temperatures and changes in ocean conditions); earthquakes; population growth; state economy.

• Historic causes: Habitat loss; mercury from the Gold Rush accumulating in fish; toxic selenium runoff from farms; sinking Delta islands; artificial levees that may break, causing flooding; upstream dams that cut off breeding areas for salmon; agricultural subsidies; development, zoning and building codes; invasive species.

• Current causes: Water withdrawals upstream of the Delta, in the Delta and outside of the Delta; fish sucked into export pumps; nutrients from farm runoff and city wastewater treatment plants; pesticides; metals that enter the water from farms, cities and industry; channel dredging; illegal harvest of threatened species; hatcheries that alter the genetic makeup of fish.

• Anticipated causes: Landscape changes; urban expansion; land use along streams feeding the Delta; people's lifestyle decisions on where and how they live.

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