Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Delta Smelt Population Craches, Panel Talks

The Delta Vision panel appointed by out "green" governor is meeting today and tomorrow. While the latest report is that the population of delta smelt has continued rapidly on its path toward extinction, it was only with great difficulty that it was possible to have this placed on the agenda. The following synopsis of the situation comes from a letter sent by State Senator Darrell Steinberg (6th Dist) to the Directors of the State Departments of Fish and Game and Water Resources as well as to the Chair of the State Water Resources Control Board.

I’m no biologist, but I find the latest smelt survey results frightening. The results suggest that an important part of the delta is literally dying. Last year at this time, the survey found smelt in 46 percent of the locations surveyed, and where the survey found smelt, the average density, or “catch per unit of effort” (CPUE), was 42.3 smelt. This year, the survey found smelt in only 17 percent of the locations surveyed, and in those few areas where there were smelt, the average density was only 4.7 CPUE. In other words, it is becoming increasingly hard to find smelt, and where we do manage to find some, there are only a few. Last year the debate was about whether the downward trend in smelt population would continue, and if the principle cause for the decline was delta exports, invasive species, toxic runoff, salt loads, or loss of habitat. This year, it now seems clear that the collapse is continuing, and from where I’m sitting, its time to stop arguing about what took the smelt to the brink of extinction and time to start taking decisive actions to bring them back.

This situation is so dire that some members of the Delta Vision panel have discussed staging a walkout if the situation is not given appropriate attention.

Whales make a good story. You can get great footage of whale and the tale of the two whales that traversed our delta all the way to the Port of Sacramento is all over American Television News. It is hard to get a good picture of a smelt. They are a very small fish, more impressive when in large numbers. Unfortunately, they are no longer in large numbers, but you won't see that on the new, so why should you care.

To begin with, you should care just because a healthy ecology is good for all of us. But, if that is not enough, then consider that the most probable cause for this rapid decline is the fact that more water is being exported from the delta to meet the demands of a growing population in our urban areas.

The threatened extinction of one small fish may be the tipping point that will force us to implement a sustainable long range plan for water in California. Somehow, I doubt that it will, but the document will still have the word "sustainable" in the title.

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