By Paige FitzGibbon, MESM '19
California WaterFix has long been touted as the solution to the thirsty state’s water problems. This project involves building an intake tunnel north of San Francisco to transport fresh water from the Sacramento River to thirsty southern California farms and cities. However, University of California biologists say that transferring this water would lead to the end of the bay delta ecosystem as we know it, exemplified by the permanent loss of the region’s iconic species: the delta smelt.[i]
California has attempted to move water from the wetter, northern half of the state down south for the past 50 years. Voters have rejected multiple attempts to fund infrastructure for this purpose. All proposed projects have been found to alter the chemical composition of the bay delta to the extent that the delta smelt, a federally endangered species, will no longer be able to survive in its own native habitat. This fish serves as the indicator species for the Bay Delta region and is an important source of food to wading birds, sport fish, and native predators. The newest iteration of the North-South water conveyance project, titled California Water Fix and Eco Restore, will guarantee a supply of fresh water to the rapidly growing Southern California cities and intensifying Central Valley agriculture at the expense of the bay delta. Diverting freshwater from the delta increases the water’s salt content and temperature, which may cause the iconic smelt species to go extinct.[ii]
Prominent environmental health researchers believe the bay delta and the delta smelt are synonymous: to risk the delta smelt is to risk the future of the entire ecosystem. University of California, Davis biologist Peter Moyle lamented the inevitable loss of the fish in a 2015 interview with National Geographic. “It's the will of the American people that we can't let any species go extinct. I believe we have a moral obligation to keep the delta smelt around.”[iii] The endangered species’ federal protections have hindered water conveyance projects in the past. However, the newest project has been given the green light because it dedicates $8 billion to habitat restoration.[iv]
Transferring water will spell disaster for the fish since reducing the volume of water in the bay delta will leave the system more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. The delta smelt is in a precarious position due to climate change even without the water transfer. Warming conditions in the delta have caused fish numbers to plummet, indicating the failing health of the system. The balance between fresh and saltwater habitat hosts an array of native species dependent upon a small temperature range. With climate change already disturbing the system, exporting freshwater will change ecosystem conditions to the extent that native species will no longer be able to survive.[v]
The smelt faces challenges with climate change and potential freshwater exportation threatening its native habitat. The final death blow to the fish is likely due to entrainment within the conveyance infrastructure itself. A San Francisco State University study found pumping stations within the San Joaquin suck up native fish through the intake pipes.[vi] The University estimates that up to 50% of all adult delta smelt are lost to current pumping infrastructure.[vii] Proponents of California WaterFix claim that the new project will feature fish screens, but these have proven expensive and inefficient.
Although California WaterFix will bring water to dry Southern California farms and cities, researchers have found that the tunnels will come at a price: the loss of an endangered species. Altering the region through water exportation will make the habitat inhospitable to the delta smelt. Environmentalists claim the fish is an important prey species and serves as the indicator for the health of a delicate and irreplaceable region.[viii] Farmers and city water managers fume at the three-inch fish who they believe stole their water. With the funding of WaterFix uncertain, there is still time to preserve the smelt and bay delta ecosystem for future generations. By limiting water use and eating sustainably grown food, Californians could eliminate the need for WaterFix altogether.
[i] Kay, J. (2015). Delta Smelt, Icon of California Water Wars, Is Almost Extinct. National Geographic. https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2015/04/150403-smelt-california-bay-delta-extinction-endangered-species-drought-fish/
[ii] Hiltzik, M. (2018). The delta smelt heads for extinction, marking a half-century of failed California water policy. The Los Angeles Times. https://www.latimes.com/business/hiltzik/la-fi-hiltzik-smelt-environment-20180105-story.html
[iii] Kay, J. (2015). Delta Smelt, Icon of California Water Wars, Is Almost Extinct. National Geographic. https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2015/04/150403-smelt-california-bay-delta-extinction-endangered-species-drought-fish/
[v] Hiltzik, M. (2018). The delta smelt heads for extinction, marking a half-century of failed California water policy. The Los Angeles Times. https://www.latimes.com/business/hiltzik/la-fi-hiltzik-smelt-environment-20180105-story.html
[vi] Kimmerer, W. J. Losses of Sacramento River Chinook Salmon and Delta Smelt to Entrainment in Water Diversions in the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta. San Francisco Estuary and Watershed Science 6, (2008).
[vii] Kimmerer, W. J. Losses of Sacramento River Chinook Salmon and Delta Smelt to Entrainment in Water Diversions in the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta. San Francisco Estuary and Watershed Science 6, (2008).
[viii] Bennett, W. A. Critical Assessment of the Delta Smelt Population in the San Francisco Estuary, California. San Francisco Estuary and Watershed Science 3, (2005).