Endangered Species: Feds Increase number of smelt that can be killed in California Delta

ENDANGERED SPECIES: Feds increase number of smelt that can be killed in Calif. delta

Debra Kahn, E&E reporter

Published: Thursday, January 29, 2015

From Greenwire, an E&E Publishing Service


Federal wildlife officials have increased the number of endangered fish that can be killed in California’s Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, in response to water managers’ request for more flexibility as the state’s historic drought continues.

At issue is accidental trapping of the endangered delta smelt, a small fish that inhabits the main water delivery hub for the state’s massive system of canals, pumps and reservoirs that supplies 25 million people and 3 million acres of farmland.

The Fish and Wildlife Service on Jan. 9 granted a request from the Bureau of Reclamation, which is in charge of operating California’s Central Valley Project on behalf of cities and farms that depend on water from the delta. The decision more than doubles the number of smelt that can be killed without violating the Endangered Species Act.

Under the terms of the 2008 biological opinion that protects the smelt, FWS determines the approximate population of smelt each year, then calculates the percentage that can be killed without jeopardizing the species’s survival. When the fish venture too close to the pumps, Reclamation has to slow or stop pumping.

On Nov. 6, Reclamation and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California presented a new method for calculating the “incidental take” limit to a state-convened scientific panel, the Delta Stewardship Council.

On Nov. 21, Reclamation asked FWS to revise its limit, arguing that the way it calculates the number of smelt in the delta is too narrow. The data that FWS relies on do not represent weather patterns that are riskiest for flushing smelt into the pumps, so they underestimate the number of fish that can be lost, Reclamation said.

“Given the continued drought conditions, limited surface supplies, lowered groundwater levels south of the Delta, and uncertainty about hydrology over the remainder of the adult Delta Smelt season, it is imperative that CVP and SWP [State Water Project] pumping continue so that adequate water is moved into storage to meet health and safety needs this coming year,” Reclamation Regional Director David Murillo wrote<http://www.fws.gov/sfbaydelta/documents/Reclamation%27s_Reinitiation_Memo_010915.pdf> in letter Jan. 9. At that point, 56 smelt had been killed, nearly three-quarters of the total permitted number of 78.

The Fish and Wildlife Service recalculated the numbers and found<http://www.fws.gov/sfbaydelta/documents/R8_Signed_Memo_January-2015_Reinitiation_Memo_to_BOR.pdf> that 196 adult fish could be killed this year, rather than 78. The decision came after the Delta Stewardship Council found that the new method was neither more nor less accurate than the current version.

Environmentalists are alarmed by the move, which comes after the Supreme Court earlier this month left standing a lower-court decision that upheld the 2008 pumping limits (Greenwire<http://www.eenews.net/greenwire/stories/1060011502/>, Jan. 12). The court challenge had been brought by water users, including the Metropolitan Water District.

“We do not believe this decision is scientifically justified and believe it is likely to significantly harm smelt and increase the risk of extinction of the species,” said Doug Obegi, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. He said he was meeting with FWS this week to discuss the decision.

While the adjustment means more smelt could be killed, it doesn’t necessarily mean that more water will be making its way out of the delta to farmers. Reclamation is due to make its first water allocation announcement of the season in late February and has warned that low precipitation could lead to another year of slashed deliveries (E&ENews PM<http://www.eenews.net/eenewspm/stories/1060012217/>, Jan. 23).

“The entire water supply doesn’t look good overall,” said Russ Waymire, a former farmer and member of Families Protecting the Valley, a group in the San Joaquin Valley that advocates for reliable water deliveries.

He cautioned that Reclamation could still hit the new limit if rain pushes the fish toward the pumps. “That could happen in one day,” he said. “We’ve got to get these population numbers up, and whatever is contributing to that decline, we’ve got to fix it.”

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