A California Species

The Delta Smelt 



It is nature and wilderness providing the foundation for the state, not development or its man-made edifices. 

More than any other state, California embodies the western ethos. People come to our mountains, grasslands and coastal regions to find redemption, breathe our wild air and escape their over civilized lives. We are the proud nature lovers, protectors of the great American frontiers.

Historically, California protects some of the first land to be coveted by the National Park system, Yosemite and Sequoia. We also have Abe Lincoln to thank for that. 

The state has also experienced great environmental tragedy. From the over 100 California Superfund sites (there are nearly twice as many Superfund sites in California than there are National Parks in the entirety of the US) to the relatively recent extinctions of native species like the

  • California Golden Bear -- the one on the state flag
  • Southern California Kit Fox
  • Tule Shrew
  • Clear Lake Splittail
  • Tecopa Pupfish
  • Thicktale Chub
  • Pasadena Freshwater Shrimp
  • Sooty Crayfish

and countless others gone extinct or nearly so from the planet in recent years. 

Death of a Species

So here we have a species of fish, the delta smelt, in the most recent survey, not a census, scientists found 6 remaining fish. The fish lives for one year, has a low reproductive rate and is widely suspected to go extinct in the wild regardless of our interventions or policies. "The fish used to be so plentiful that it was caught and sold commercially. Over the course of about three decades, 'the delta smelt went from being the most common fish to one of the most rare,' said Marty Gingras, a California Fish and Wildlife Department biologist who manages year-round smelt surveys" (source).  

Fish biologist Tina Swanson of the Natural Resources Defense Council told National Geographic in 2015, "It's not just the delta smelt. Nearly every single native and non-native fish species is showing the same pattern. To me, that is an excruciatingly clear indication that our management of the environment in which they live—the delta and upper bay—is insufficiently protective." 

The California river delta area is a massive interior of the upper San Francisco bay.  See the image below to consider the area in relation to California on a whole. 

Though my aim here is to present facts, history and consider the future, I'd like for you to imagine the road ahead if we continue letting our California ecosystems die. What are the consequences of losing the life in our estuaries and coastal habitats and simultaneously allowing massive California agriculture and development to continue mismanaging its water, directing the fate of our remaining native species and habitats.

It is time for California agriculture to change the way it farms.

Many people simply view the loss of habitat and species as a natural externality to human progress. "Survival of the fittest," they say, "if the fish can't adapt, then it doesn't belong here." A popular rhetoric found on the internet. 

Agriculture & Water: Bread Basket to Dead Basket

Droves of people in support of California agriculture, in terms of food and jobs, want the California native delta smelt to go extinct. Another nail in the coffin, so the California River delta can be pumped further and piped to the valley to irrigate California farms--to feed people. It's estimated on several sources that 400,000 acres (at a minimum) have been left to fallow abiding the pumping regulations aimed at helping the smelt and other estuary species. Many critics argue the regulations are partly to blame for the decline and that, ultimately, regulations don't help whatsoever.

Another national security claim touted online, "A two inch bait fish, the Delta Smelt, which they claim is an 'endangered species' to shut down all of the water to the San Joaquin Valley. They have created a modern day dust bowl out of some of the most beautiful farmland on earth. Some 400,000 acres have been destroyed with one million total acres in jeopardy" (source). Nevermind that water diversion isn't how the last dust bowl was created, which was actually caused by changing the fundamental ecology of the landscape. This is what we're facing in the California river delta, consequences associated with changing the regional ecology.

Evaporating Water 

Let's talk about water supplies. Rain is nice, but snow-pack is what gets California agriculture and domestic water use through the dry periods. Snow is critical for California's future. Snow recharges groundwater.

Take a look at this model indicating water in a typical California snow-pack in April (based on modeling) put together by Cal-adapt, using Scripps Institution of Oceanography data.

Notice how the model shows a maintaining trend of dwindling snow-pack into the future. Look at the timeline, less than a hundred years. Droughts are our reality. This will have consequences for both habitats and agriculture. It's also worth considering that 80% of the land suitable for farming is currently in use. 

The Public Policy Institute Center (PPIC) Water Policy Center released a report detailing the changing landscape of farm water use, some key findings include: 

  • Acreage is shifting toward higher-revenue—but less flexible—crops. California farmers have shifted markedly to fruits, nuts, vegetables, and nursery crops, which made up roughly 47 percent of irrigated crop acreage, 38 percent of farm water use, and 86 percent of crop revenue in 2012. By comparison, forage crops, such as alfalfa and corn silage—inputs for the important dairy and cattle industries—generate less revenue per unit of water. In the water-limited San Joaquin Valley, orchards grew from 34 percent to 40 percent of irrigated cropland between 2000 and 2010. The rise in fruit and especially nut orchards—which must be watered every year—has reduced farmers’ ability to withstand intermittent water shortages.
  • Water delivery and field irrigation efficiencies are rising. Many irrigation districts have been upgrading delivery systems to provide more flexible service and minimize canal spills and seepage. Farmers have been switching from flood irrigation to drip and sprinkler systems, which improve crop yields and quality and reduce the application of harmful chemicals. However, in some regions—especially the San Joaquin Valley—these water management upgrades, including canal lining, have the unintended consequence of lowering groundwater levels. That is because irrigation water not consumed by crops is a major source of groundwater recharge.
  • Groundwater is becoming more important . . . and more threatened. San Joaquin Valley farmers have been pumping more groundwater to replace surface water previously shipped through the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta or diverted from the San Joaquin River, as both sources have decreased to support endangered fish habitats. Groundwater is also being used to establish new orchards in previously unirrigated areas that lack surface water. High returns on orchard crops have made it profitable for farmers to invest in deeper wells, aggravating groundwater depletion. Groundwater quality is also falling in many areas, threatening crop yields and drinking water (source).

More than 35 native plants and animals that live in or pass through the Delta are now listed under state and federal endangered species acts. The declines of native fishes, such as delta smelt, longfin smelt, Chinook salmon, and green sturgeon, are due to many factors: loss of habitat, changes in the volume and timing of flows, changes in water quality, and unfavorable hatchery and fishing practices. In addition, many alien species have invaded the estuary, often altering the environment and competing with or preying on native species. - The Public Policy Institute (2015)

Recent droughts have exposed a number of issues relating to long term water management. The PPIC has a fascinating report on the Sacramento-San Joaquin River watershed, available here. One of the major findings in the report includes a statement on the changing ecosystems in the watershed (to the right). 

The PPIC report regards the delta fish directly, indicating that "California has compelling social and economic reasons to reverse the decline of Delta fish populations, including avoiding regulatory costs. Because the science is uncertain, bold experiments are needed in habitat restoration, flow changes, and management of fisheries and invasive species. Agencies will need to adjust flow management and take other actions as scientific understanding improves. This work requires reliable funding." 

Though fraught with on-going criticism, it should be noted that the Endangered Species Act is widely considered one of the most successful laws in US history. The Center for Biological Diversity conducted a study "of all endangered species in the northeastern United States found that 93 percent increased or remained stable since being placed on the endangered list; this extraordinary success rate represents a fair sample that can be extrapolated nationwide" (source).

Elephant in the Room

It's a tragedy that so many extinction supporters don't see the long road ahead, the drought, wild fires and natural weather extremes for what they really are: California climate is changing and species can't adapt fast enough. 

And the drought, which the scientific community says will return with all the mandates and cost increases to follow, will not be quenched by diverting the remaining strands of freshwater to the valley. We will have to make tough choices ahead, human equity or biodiversity. 

Destroying the remaining ecosystems to support water mismanagement in California industry is a long-run mistake. Rather than push extinction forward, we should be looking to preserve these genetics; strong ecosystems demand robust biodiversity. Narrowing biodiversity leads to ecological disaster. But the solution to balancing domestic and ecological needs is going to be battle wrought with compromise. 

We may not feel the effect of losing these native species today, but like the formerly abundant passenger pigeon and buffalo which "shattered the myth of inexhaustibility and helped ignite widespread discussion about the destruction of American wildlife" (M. Barrow, A Passion for Birds: American Ornithology After Audubon) we will befall the condemnation of future generations for our haste, ignorance and civil arrogance. 

This is what we've come to, isn't it? Dry our ecosystems, starve the estuaries, block the remaining strands of water leading into the Pacific and send it to the valley -- certainly these remaining threads of freshwater will carry us indefinitely into the future. Certainly the skeletons of species left in the drying beds are worth the almond trees bowing for water.  

A Solution

We must adopt new high production modern methods for farming at massive scales while reducing our impact on the native environment in the future. As populations further shift into the urban realm, local production and micro community scale is a likely way forward. Bring upon the death of the 500 mile Caesar salad, as they say. Finding higher efficiency, lower water consumption processes will also be key to California maintaining its hold as America's great agriculture producer. It will be necessary for California to depart from or relocate high water consumption crops.

The technology community will need to take aim at the problem with innovation, something like vertical farming.   

Vertical farming deployed (source).

The discussion reminds me of a statement John Muir made in his book, "Our National Parks," expressing the foundation of our National Park System, which grew defiantly from the purpose of defending our great natural landscapes from development and resource extraction. Ultimately, we shifted our focus from old growth tree extraction and began developing alternative construction materials, but the quote holds true today as it did in the 1800s.

Any fool can destroy trees. They cannot run away; and if they could, they would still be destroyed — chased and hunted down as long as fun or a dollar could be got out of their bark hides, branching horns, or magnificent bole backbones. Few that fell trees plant them; nor would planting avail much towards getting back anything like the noble primeval forests. ... It took more than three thousand years to make some of the trees in these Western woods — trees that are still standing in perfect strength and beauty, waving and singing in the mighty forests of the Sierra. Through all the wonderful, eventful centuries ... God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand straining, leveling tempests and floods; but he cannot save them from fools — only Uncle Sam can do that.
— John Muir (1901)