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Feds Quietly Double Allowable Kill of Endangered Delta Fish

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The fate of the Delta smelt would seem to be in the USFWS' hands | Photo: USFWS/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Just days after the California Department of Fish and Wildlife reported the worst season in history for the federally Endangered delta smelt, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service quietly gave permission in early January for Central Valley water projects to kill more than twice as many smelts at their intake pumps this year.

The state wildlife agency reported January 7 that just eight delta smelt were found in more than 400 fish sampling trawls across the Sacramento Delta in the previous four months, fewer than half the number found in the previous all-time worst year for the smelt, in 2009.

Two days later, USFWS boosted the number of delta smelt it would allow the state and federal water agencies to kill at aqueduct intake pumps in the Delta from 78 to 196 adult smelt. That means those agencies have permission to kill more than 24 times as many delta smelts as the state's wildlife agency could find last fall.

On January 9, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation reported to USFWS that intake pumps for the federal Central Valley Project and for the State Water Project had killed 56 adult smelt during the current Water Year, which started October 1. The USFWS' Biological Opinion on the smelt for the combined projects allowed "incidental take" of 78 adult fish.

As those projects' pumps had killed more than half their allowable take of smelts just a third of the way into the water year, the Bureau was obliged under the U.S. Endangered Species Act to request what's called "reconsultation" with USFWS over the smelt. Otherwise, pumping of all water from the Delta to southern aqueducts could be halted once that 78th smelt of the year died.

It didn't take long for the Bureau of Reclamation to get a response. USFWS boosted the allowable incidental take for the Bureau, and for the state Department of Water Resources, which operates the State Water Project, the very same day. Those agencies now have an "interim" allowable incidental take more than twice as high as the level specified in the Biological Opinion.

In granting the increase in allowable take, USFWS pointed to criticism of the assumptions behind the earlier take limit's numbers by an independent review panel, which pointed out that there was no clear way of establishing how big a percentage of the actual total smelt population was being killed at the pumps each year.

In its response to the Bureau, USFWS says it plans to come up with a more accurate way of estimating just what percentage of the delta smelt population is being killed at the pumps.

The delta smelt is often considered a crucial indicator species for the health of the Delta, as it thrives in a narrow band of salinity where fresh water from the state's rivers mixes with brackish water from San Francisco Bay. Water diversions for agriculture and urban use mean that the smelt's preferred "mixing zone" has shifted inland, bringing the fish into closer proximity to the above-mentioned pumps.

With a lifespan of just a year, the fish is supremely vulnerable to fluctuations in population: a generation of adults gets just one chance to reproduce, and that means that a year in which breeding fails could doom the species.

Ironically, USFWS' quiet approval of a drastic increase in take limits for the smelt came just three days before the U.S. Supreme Court refused to consider reversing a Ninth Circuit Court decision in which the lower court ruled that USFWS could order an end to water deliveries through the Central Valley Project and the State Water Project if continued diversion of Sacramento River water was likely to hurt the smelt.

Unsurprisingly, advocates for wildlife in the Sacramento Delta were less than pleased with the USFWS decision. "This secret accord comes at a time when California Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer are calling for 'science' to guide all negotiations on California's contentious water issues," said Tom Stokely, a senior water policy analyst for the California Water Impact Network. "This action cannot be justified by available science. It has nothing to do with science, and everything to do with political pressure from powerful interests who want to maintain a stranglehold on our state's public water."

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