The Delta Smelt and Another Threatened Species

Bettina Boxall of the Los Angeles Times has a very informative article from last Wednesday’s edition. See:

http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-delta-smelt-20110202,0,527655.story

The article is about the Delta smelt, a 3-inch long fish that lives only in the Sacramento River Delta. With such a small range, and with the sad ecological shape that particular place on Earth is in, it is no surprise that this species is listed as “Threatened,” and that it is likely to be labeled “Endangered” very soon.

Understanding the tale of the Delta smelt is very important to understanding the overall picture of water supply in California. The use of natural waterways to convey our water supply is fraught with problems. And the Delta smelt is perhaps the best example of the “collateral damage” inflicted on the environment by this practice. This is yet another powerful argument for the Peripheral Canal.

Another aspect of life in the Sacramento River Delta that has been difficult on the Delta smelt is agriculture. The fertile soils and abundant, year-round water supply of the region began attracting farmers more than 100 years ago. Family farms have operated in this region for decades. And in recent years they have had to contend with seasonal flooding, failing levees, and dropping ground levels.

Just as we see in other major delta areas of the world — think New Orleans — the soil is highly organic here. That’s a big factor in the great fertility of the soil. But it also leads to the slow decomposition of the soil, as nature converts the organic material into carbon dioxide. This results in a slow but steady loss of volume of soil.

As the soil is lost, the farmland drops below river level. To save the farms, levees are constructed. After decades of this practice, most of the farmland in the Delta is below water level. So any breach in the levees can result in catastrophic loss of farmland — and the folks that own and work that land.

Ms. Boxall’s article looks at the current status of a recently flooded area known as Liberty Island — something of a misnomer, as this area is now underwater. It turns out, this is a great place for Delta smelt today. It is probably very much like the environment that they adapted to over the thousands of years that the species flourished here — up until the past century or so, and especially the last few decades.

Expect more of these “islands” to flood as aging levees fail in the Delta. It is good news for the Delta smelt, but it is a disaster in the making for the poor folks that live here. I’m pretty sure none of them want to move away from a beautiful land that has been in their family for decades. But I’m also pretty sure that, eventually, they will all face incredible disasters. In fact, these farmers are an endangered species!

Would it not be best for all — including the Delta smelt — if the State embarked on some equitable means of relocating these people in the near term, instead of waiting for the catastrophic inevitability that is to befall them?

And that’s just one chapter in the complex story that is water in California.

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