San Francisco, CA
A coalition of conservation organizations filed suit in federal court here today against the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service challenging the agency’s recent biological opinion concluding that increasing water exports from the San Francisco Bay-Delta to the San Joaquin Valley would have no major impacts on the survival of the federally protected delta smelt.
“To claim the delta smelt is recovering and will not be impacted by increased water exports is wishful thinking at best,” said Tina Swanson, Ph.D., Senior Scientist at The Bay Institute. “The estuary is already facing a major ecological crisis. Increasing water exports could well push the ecosystem toward collapse.”
The Fish and Wildlife Service issued the biological opinion on July 30, 2004, finding that the revised Operating Criteria and Plan (OCAP) for the jointly operated Central Valley Project and the State Water Project posed no jeopardy to the federally listed delta smelt. This Plan could result in additional annual pumping of hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of water out of the Delta over the next 25 years.
Because the delta smelt is listed as a threatened species, the Fish and Wildlife Service is required to analyze what steps should be taken to move the species toward recovery. This was not done in the critical habitat analysis of the biological opinion. Also, the groups noted that the latest state monitoring data show that delta smelt are at their lowest recorded level in over 35 years. Because the service ignored the threats to recovery and the real risk of extinction posed by the two huge water projects, the groups are asking the court to invalidate the biological opinion and require a new one based on sound science and current data.
Conservation groups also argue that the service failed to properly evaluate proposed operational changes to the federal and state water projects described in the OCAP, including plans to increase the pumping capacity and expand water deliveries under new long-term federal water contracts.
The smelt is found only in California’s San Francisco Bay-Delta, and its survival depends on an adequate freshwater supply to the estuary. Recent biological surveys by the California Department of Fish and Game found the delta smelt population, which had been declining for the past five years, was at its lowest level since monitoring began in 1967.
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“In the natural rhythm of the Delta, this crash in fish populations is surprising. Unusually wet or dry years can trigger big drops in fish populations. But the past few years have been pretty average. So this widespread multi-species die-off of fish with no historic explanation is new and worrisome.”
The crisis in the Delta has many faces but one common link – lack of freshwater to maintain a healthy estuary. Delta smelt populations face a multi-pronged attack as their habitat is degraded; their zooplankton food source declines; and they are sucked into the state and federal water pumps.
Hal Candee, senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council said, “From delta smelt to chinook salmon, fish in the Delta and the Central Valley are in serious trouble, and the federal and state governments are making the problem worse. This is bad news for the entire Bay-Delta system as well as for the state’s recreational and commercial fishermen.”
“The smelt are an indicator of the environmental health of the entire Delta ecosystem,” said Steve Evans, conservation director at Friends of the River. “If the native fish are dying, the Delta is dying. This should be a cause of concern for the many communities who depend on the Delta for drinking water supplies.”
Manipulation of Science
A recent survey of FWS biologists, ecologists, and botanists working in field offices across the country found that more than half of respondents reported cases where “commercial interests have inappropriately induced the reversal or withdrawal of scientific conclusions or decisions through political intervention” and 42 percent said they could not openly express “concerns about the biological needs of species and habitats without fear of retaliation.” Almost a third felt they are not allowed to do their jobs as scientists. Read about the survey here.
“This lawsuit is an effort to reverse the increasing trend of political appointees overriding the professional judgment of agency scientists,” said Bill Jennings, Baykeeper’s Deltakeeper. “In the Delta the result has been the smallest population of delta smelt in the 38 years of record.”
“The Fish and Wildlife Service has given a green light to a major modification of delta smelt’s critical habitat without considering the impacts,” said Laura Robb of Earthjustice. “This was done to push through a multitude of ill-considered water contracts in an arbitrary rush to appease agricultural users. We need the best science available to save the Delta and the native species that live there. Politics should never get in the way.”
The plaintiff coalition includes: Natural Resources Defense Council, California Trout, Baykeeper’s Deltakeeper chapter, Friends of the River, and The Bay Institute, represented by lawyers from Earthjustice and NRDC.