The Delta Smelt is a small fish in the middle of a big controversy in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Valley. The tiny fish has a lifespan of one year and is a primary food source to striped bass and large-mouth bass, which are invasive species in Sacramento Delta. The population is much smaller than historically and the species was listed in 1993 as threatened under the California Endangered Species Act (CESA) and Federal Endangered Species Act (FESA). In 2008, the California Fish and Game Commission moved to up list delta smelt to endangered under CESA.

On August 31, 2007, California
Judge Oliver Wanger of Federal District Court protected the rare declining fish delta smelt by severely curtailing human use water deliveries at San JoaquinSacramento
River delta from December to June.[2] These are the pumps at the Banks Pumping Plant that send water to Central and Southern California for agricultural and residential use.

The results of this water shut-off has devastated the San Joaquin Valley and destroyed the lives of the people who live there. The delta smelt is a fish that exists only in California and has no commercial value. The Pacific Legal Foundation is representing three Joaquin Valley farmers hit hard by the water cutbacks in a pending court case that will address the constitutionality of the water shut-down.

Oral arguments will take place Friday, October 2, 2009 at the Fresno Federal Courthouse (San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority v. Salazar; Case # 1:09-cv-407). A summary of the complaint, which was filed on May 21, 2009 follows:

“In a misguided scheme to help a fish that’s on the Endangered Species Act list—the delta smelt—federal restrictions have severely cut the pumping into the water system that serves millions of people in Central and Southern California.

“These are “the most drastic cuts ever to California water…the biggest impact anywhere, nationwide,” according to the California water agencies.

“While farms and businesses are starved of water, more than 81 billion gallons of water have been allowed to flow out to the ocean—off-limits to human use or consumption, thanks to federal regulators’ environmental extremism. That’s enough to put 85,000 acres of farmland back into production.

“In the Central Valley, California’s agricultural heartland, up to 90,000 jobs are threatened by the pumping cutbacks. In some urban communities of Southern California, water rationing is a prospect. Moreover, in a real sense, national security is also at issue: By starving America’s breadbasket, the feds make us more dependent on foreign sources for the basic need of life: food.

“Representing farmers affected by the water cutbacks, PLF’s federal lawsuit focuses on both statutory and constitutional causes of action:

“In violation of administrative law, federal officials haven’t fulfilled their duty under their own regulations to show that the water cutoff will actually help the smelt, or to consider and weigh the economic costs.

“Because the smelt is not sold in interstate commerce, the federal government has no Commerce Clause authority to regulate it. “In other words,” said PLF attorney Damien Schiff, “the regulatory drought is not just morally wrong—it is flat-out unconstitutional.”

In the case of the delta smelt, a fish being eaten by invasive species, let us all hope that the judge uses common sense when issuing a ruling.