By Trent Orr, January 21, 2015
Protecting the delta smelt has reverberations far beyond the fate of one little fish, however. By denying Big Ag’s challenge of water restrictions meant to protect the smelt, the Supreme Court leaves in place a longstanding ruling that the Endangered Species Act requires federal agencies to consider the preservation of all endangered species their highest priority.
But that’s not all. The Supreme Court’s decision also protects the much larger ecosystem dependent on an adequate flow of fresh water through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Thanks to protections provided to the smelt and its habitat by the Endangered Species Act, many other species are now kept from joining the smelt’s imperiled ranks.
Finally, freshwater flows through the Delta support valuable commercial and sport fisheries and provide irrigation water for Delta farmers and drinking water for millions of Californians.
You read that last part right. Making sure that tiny little fish survives is actually pretty important to ensuring that California’s taps don’t run dry.
But agricultural interests and their friends in Congress don’t agree. They often attribute the lack of irrigation water to these water restrictions to protect the smelt, but nothing could be further from the truth. California’s longstanding water management problems are rooted in massive state and federal water projects that transfer unsustainable quantities of water from the Delta to semi-arid agricultural districts in the southern Central Valley. The problem is compounded by the current historic drought and resultant light snowpack in the Sierra Nevada mountains, which used to provide the state with the majority of its water through California’s dry summers. But, it’s easier for lawmakers to deny climate change and blame the tiny delta smelt for the lack of water than to address the bigger issue of unsustainable water projects.
Fortunately, thanks to the Supreme Court’s decision, politicians and the agricultural industry will finally be forced to move beyond blaming a tiny fish for all of their water woes. If they don’t, Earthjustice will continue its years-long effort to defend the smelt and everything that it stands for.