The Delta Smelt: A Tiny Fish with Big Implications

By Trent Orr, January 21, 2015

An adult delta smelt.
An adult delta smelt. Dale Kolke / California Department of Water Resources

The delta smelt is a fish that grows to no more than three inches in length, but over the years this threatened species has made big headlines in California’s dusty, water-rights battleground. One congressional representative, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA), is even on record as calling the smelt a “stupid little fish” that doesn’t deserve water (see video below). Recently, the Supreme Court dismissed such narrow-minded claims by denying a Big Ag-led attack against the smelt.

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.

CA Aqueduct
Aqueducts snake through California’s arid farmland. Doc Searls / Flickr

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.

CA Dust Bowl
Political signs can be found throughout the Central Valley reflecting the ongoing battle over water allocation. Lynn Friedman / Flickr

Now that the Supreme Court has come down solidly on the side of reason and the law, legislators should take this opportunity to rethink California’s water management policies and provide for a more realistic distribution of our limited water resources to provide for a healthy environment, safe drinking water, and sustainable agriculture. The Supreme Court’s decision will also encourage new solutions to California’s water woes, pushing legislators to move beyond a status quo dependent upon the costly transport of Delta water to arid areas unsuitable for intensive, irrigated agriculture.

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.