Sunday, July 26, 2009





At long last a federal court has recognized that efforts to save the endangered, minnow-like delta smelt actually have some impact on humans and non-marine parts of the environment.

This sea change means that effects on humans will also be considered in appeals of another federal effort, this one to revive river spawning of Chinook salmon.

The natural reaction to this sudden shift in legal thinking might be as simple as, “Well, duh.”

But the fact is that for at least five years, and certainly for the last two springtime water seasons, in which use of runoff from snow melt in the Sierra Nevada mountain range has been restricted, effects on humans were not any kind of factor in legal thinking.

Rather, operations of the huge pumps on the south side of the delta of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers were shut down for weeks at a time during the most productive water season in order to preserve the silvery smelt.

It simply didn’t matter that shutting the pumps had no discernible effect on smelt population, but did have a major impact on farmers, farm workers and urban water users from the San Francisco Bay area through the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California.

That was the meaning of rulings by U.S. District Court Judge Oliver Wanger of Fresno upholding the 2008 biological opinion of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), which presumes the pumps feeding the state Water Project and the federal Central Valley Project are a major cause of the smelt’s problems.

But Wanger’s thinking apparently changed because of the near-depression caused in much of the region around where he lives by the combination of natural drought and his edicts. His new ruling came in an appeal of the FWS biological opinion by farming members of the Westlands Water District and the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority. It’s not yet known if or how much water flow might be restored as a result of the new thinking, but there is bound to be some effect.

Wanger stated it baldly in forbidding further new restrictions in water pumping designed to save smelt, which environmentalists consider an indicator species whose health and numbers reflect conditions around them.

His list of effects from lower water supplies included damage to permanent crops including orchards and vineyards that sequester carbon and help combat global warming, job losses, reductions in public school enrollments, greater toxic pollution of farmland, groundwater overdraft, increased electricity consumption and air pollution from dust caused when farmland is fallowed for lack of water. About 500,000 acres have gone unplanted this year, about 800 square miles of the world’s most fertile farmland.

Those items produced no surprise in farming communities like Firebaugh and Mendota, where numerous businesses have gone broke because the farm workers who long patronized them disappeared as jobs dried up. Unemployment in some areas now exceeds 30 percent – at what is normally the height of seasonal farm work.

All this took on new importance when the national Marine Fisheries Service (MFS) dropped a potential new bombshell on California farmers and urban water users. MFS issued its own springtime biological opinion, another name for an order, this one demanding even more cuts in pumping water from the delta to allegedly benefit the Chinook salmon and one species of killer whales.

Besides less pumping, the MFS opinion demands construction of about $1 billion worth of fish ladders on currently existing dams, the idea being to enable spawning salmon to migrate upstream from the Pacific.

The MFS ruling is certain to be appealed quickly, unlike Wanger’s original order in the smelt case, which went unchallenged through two water seasons before it was altered by his new ruling in the water district appeal.

If effects on humans must be considered in the delta smelt case, they will surely have to be a factor in the Chinook salmon matter, too.

And the disastrous human effects of smelt-induced pumping shutdowns make it clear that any further reductions in pumping will only make things worse for people, without any assurance they will benefit other fish any more than they helped the smelt.

All of which means the water picture in California just got somewhat wetter, because a key judge has at last realized that cutting water supplies affects much more than just fish.


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