Judge Orders More Water for Vanishing Fish in Sacramento Delta


Delta smelt, other delta species, are in sharp decline


Trent Orr, Earthjustice, (510) 550-6782 

Responding to a lawsuit brought by conservation organizations, and following a hearing that lasted two weeks, Judge Oliver Wanger of the federal district court in Fresno has ordered that flows of water through the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta in California be increased between December 2007 and June 2008 in order to help the delta smelt, a federally protected species found only in the delta, recover from its currently imperiled state. Though it was the most abundant fish in the delta as recently as 30 years ago, fish biologists agree that the smelt is presently on the brink of extinction, due in part to massive exports of water from the Delta by federal and state water projects.

The ruling follows an earlier ruling from the same judge that led to the temporary shutdown of water project pumps in early June. The pumps suck in and kill delta smelt and juvenile salmon. Plaintiffs in the case, represented by Earthjustice attorneys Trent Orr and Andrea Treece, are the Natural Resources Defense Council, Friends of the River, California Trout, the Bay Institute, and Baykeeper.

The smelt has had its numbers plummet to the point where, as Judge Wanger wrote last May, “The Delta smelt is undisputedly in jeopardy as to its survival and recovery.” The smelt’s plight mirrors that of several salmon species that migrate through the delta — their numbers have recently crashed as well.

The period between 2000 and 2005 saw record volumes of water diverted from the delta for agriculture and domestic consumption.

“This problem has been bearing down on us for many years, but responsible agencies have ignored it at the behest of Big Agriculture and municipal and industrial water users,” said Orr. “This ruling may cause appreciable reductions in water exports from the delta, depending on the amount of precipitation in the coming water year. But if we want to preserve the delta and the species that depend on it, we’ll eventually see this as a most welcome and necessary wake-up call.” 

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