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Longfin smelt
Delta smelt
San Francisco Chronicle, November 15, 2009

2 new lawsuits to save S.F. Bay-delta smelt
By Bob Egelko

Two environmental groups sued the federal government Friday seeking greater habitat protections for two San Francisco Bay-delta fish species, one of them the delta smelt, a small but important creature in California's water wars.

One lawsuit asks a federal judge in Sacramento to require the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to respond to the groups' March 2006 request to change the delta smelt's status from "threatened" to "endangered." That action would somewhat tighten federal standards for development or water-use permits.

A second suit, filed in San Francisco, challenges the federal agency's decision in April to deny protected status to the bay-delta population of the longfin smelt. The agency said the local population is not a distinct group entitled to protection because some of the fish migrate up the coast to breed with other longfin, a conclusion the environmental groups called a reversal of the government's longtime position.

"Formerly abundant fish at the base of the food chain in the San Francisco estuary are being driven to near extinction," said Jeff Miller of the Center for Biological Diversity, which filed the suits along with the Bay Institute.

Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Steve Martarano said his agency is still reviewing the status of both fish, and cited recent federal surveys showing both populations at historically low levels. The agency issued a biological opinion on the delta smelt in December that triggered a government order of reduced water shipments from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, angering Central Valley farm groups and prompting an unsuccessful protest from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Martarano also said there's no practical difference between the law's protections for endangered and threatened species, both of which are entitled to government designation of critical habitat and a recovery plan.

Miller agreed but said the lawsuits, if successful, would strengthen environmental safeguards that affect other species - Central Valley salmon, sturgeon and steelhead - and counter the state's pressure for water development.

He criticized legislation signed by Schwarzenegger this week that puts an $11.1 billion water bond on the November 2010 ballot, including funding for delta protection and restoration, new dams, and potentially a peripheral canal to carry water around the delta. Environmental groups are split on the measure.

Biologists say the delta smelt, 2 to 3 inches long, is an indicator of the health of the ecosystem. Court rulings and regulatory decisions since 2007, designed to save the once-abundant fish from extinction, have substantially reduced pumping of water from the delta to Central Valley croplands and Southern California households.

© 2009 Hearst Communications Inc.

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton