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Longfin smelt
Delta smelt
San José Mercury News, March 4, 2009

Delta fish get new environmental protections
By Garance Burke, Associated Press writer

FRESNO, Calif.—California fish and wildlife managers approved new protections Wednesday for two fish species that play a key ecological role in the beleaguered Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, a move authorities said could trigger cuts to the state's water supplies for crops and cities.

The Fish and Game Commission voted unanimously Wednesday to list the longfin smelt as a threatened species under the California Endangered Species Act.

Commissioners also voted to classify the longfin's cousin, the tiny delta smelt, as an endangered species, moves hailed by environmentalists as a victory for the fragile ecosystem and its bellwether species.

"We should be managing California's water system to protect not just one species but all of them," said Tina Swanson, executive director of the Bay Institute, which petitioned the state for the listings with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Both these fish are pretty rare right now, and we run the risk of not even being able to detect them just because so few are alive."

In recent years, court decisions aimed at protecting the delta smelt have restricted water deliveries from the delta, the inland freshwater estuary where both fish live, and have spelled major losses for growers in the state's farm belt who rely on the system to irrigate their crops.

Federal scientists say the delta smelt are on the brink of extinction.

This year, farms' water supplies again are running low, but for a different reason—three years of dry weather and parched reservoirs.

Officials with the state Department of Fish and Game said Wednesday's decision could allow for a separate set of cutbacks to be triggered if scientists find longfin smelt are at risk of being killed by the giant pumps that send water from the delta to more than 25 million Californians.

Department surveys show the population of the longfin smelt in the fall of 2007 reached their lowest since the surveys began in 1967.

The silvery fish, which grows to about 5 inches long, is considered an indicator of the ecosystem's health, and begins spawning in the estuary earlier than the delta smelt, officials said.

"There is the potential for longfin smelt protections to be triggered even if there aren't any in effect for the delta smelt," said Marty Gingras, a supervising biologist with the department.

The motion the commission approved Wednesday instructs the department to list the longfin smelt as a threatened species, and start regulating how the fish should be protected for the next 10 years.

Some rules safeguarding the longfin smelt have been in place since February 2008, when the species first qualified as a candidate for listing.

Wednesday's action sets in stone an agreement between the department and state water officials that protects longfin smelt from December to June, while the fish migrate, spawn and hatch in the estuary and are most likely to be killed in the pumps, Gingras said.

If scientists find fish in dangerous conditions during that time frame, that triggers an evaluation process that involves five state and federal agencies and ultimately falls to Department of Fish and Game Director Don Koch for a final decision.

Koch has said he reserves the right to take no action.

If rules protecting the delta smelt are already causing pumping restrictions, protections for the longfin smelt wouldn't cause any additional cutbacks, Gingras said.

Daniel O'Hanlon, an attorney who represents more than two dozen agencies that buy their water from the state, warned commissioners their decision risked hurting businesses and cities at a time when California can ill afford it.

"This is unfortunately a bad time for this type of a regulation," he testified at their public meeting in Woodland. "It has a high cost to the people and the economy of California that we do not believe ultimately is going to result in a benefit to this species."

Copyright © 2009 - San Jose Mercury News

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton