The Fish and the Whales

By Peter Gleick

A version of this essay was originally printed in the San Francisco Chronicle on May 31, 2007.

The Terminator may soon become Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s official title, not just his humorous nickname. Earlier this month, media and public attention was riveted on the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta as two wayward whales made their way back to the Pacific Ocean. At the same time, and of far less apparent public interest, another crisis below the surface of the delta has reached a boiling point. New scientific surveys revealed that a tiny fish — the delta smelt — appears to be heading for rapid extinction.

Numerous surveys this year turned up only 25 of the officially threatened fish, a tiny fraction of the number found in similar surveys taken over the past seven years. This led the federal and state scientists conducting the surveys to issue an unprecedented warning describing the delta smelt as “critically imperiled” and calling for an “emergency response.”

The extinction of any species is a tragedy. The extinction of the smelt would be an unnecessary one, given our impressive scientific understanding of this species and its ecosystem. While the smelt is small, unphotogenic and unlikely to generate swarms of reporters in helicopters, boats and TV vans, the implications of its extinction will be felt from the governor’s office to the farms and cities of Southern California. The fear in the scientific community is that, as goes the smelt, so ultimately, go the salmon and other threatened and endangered fish.

Unfortunately, for many years California governors and federal and state environmental officials at agencies ranging from the Department of Water Resources to Fish and Game to the Bureau of Reclamation have been unwilling to implement the increasingly urgent recommendations of the scientific teams to change the way the delta water system is managed. The economic and political pressures to maintain exports of water to Southern California users are high. We know, however, that the physical barriers and huge pumps in the delta that permit massive exports of water to farms and cities in the south also kill fish directly and radically change flows in the delta, affecting water quality, water temperatures and access to habitat vital for fish survival.

The scientific evidence suggests that reducing the amount of water diverted from the delta by both state and federal facilities during the critical periods when young fish are near the pumps should help reduce piscine mortality. Reducing exports during spawning is also considered critical, and can be done by better monitoring and controlling for delta water temperatures. Despite specific recommendations to reduce exports of water that threaten fish and to modify or eliminate physical barriers in the delta, water exports have gone up in recent years, not down. The science shows a clear relationship between increasing water exports and decreasing survival of fish. Yet we know that exports of water south can be reduced by accelerating and expanding efforts to reduce wasteful and inefficient uses of water. Even now, during a severe drought, few water agencies are putting new water-use efficiency programs in place, preferring instead to just hope that next year is wet.

Scientific uncertainties remain, but this is not the time for new studies. There is now a real risk that the fish may literally be studied to death. While the biology of the fish and the complex dynamics of the delta make it hard for scientists to know what will guarantee survival of the species, the official scientific working group has made a set of specific recommendations in its most recent briefing statement. In particular, the massive delta pumps must be operated so that they don’t completely reverse the flows of the Old and Middle rivers; south delta water exports and physical barriers must be limited until the vast majority of the smelt population migrates below the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers; flows in the San Joaquin River must be increased during summer; and the salinity in the western delta must be managed to maximize smelt spawning and survival.

If the governor doesn’t want to be a real-life Terminator, he must immediately direct his agency officials to implement these recommendations. Save the whales, but save the fishes, too.

Peter H. Gleick, Ph.D, is president of the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment, and Security, a nonpartisan Oakland-based think tank. He is a MacArthur Fellow and member of the National Academy of Sciences.