Water & Drought

State’s Delta smelt plan calls for more water flowing to sea

With Delta smelt numbers at all-time lows, state officials on Tuesday released a list of more than a dozen projects they’re hoping to undertake in the next few years in a last-ditch effort to stave off the fish’s extinction.

One of those plans is sure to be contentious. The “Delta Smelt Resiliency Strategy” released Tuesday by the California Natural Resources Agency calls for allowing between 85,000 and 200,000 acre-feet of extra water to wash out to sea this summer to bolster smelt habitat.

That’s no small amount: 200,000 acre-feet is equal to a quarter of Folsom Lake’s capacity, though not all the amount released would come from Folsom.

Federal dam operators say the state’s plans are a tad too ambitious.

“I would call that part a little bit strongly worded,” U.S. Bureau of Reclamation spokesman Shane Hunt said Monday after reviewing the state’s proposal. “We’re fairly confident we’ll get some water, but I don’t think we’ll get anywhere close to the top end of this range that’s in this document.”

The document calls for “a variety of methods” to achieve such large outflows, including buying water from willing sellers, changing how water is exported from the Delta or releasing water stored behind Central Valley dams. The plan also calls for 250,000 acre-feet to be released to the Pacific Ocean next summer.

Agricultural groups in the San Joaquin Valley have fretted for weeks about the first-ever summertime outflows to protect the smelt.

Last month, 15 members of Congress from California sent a letter urging the Obama administration to reject such a plan out of concern it would lead to Delta pumping restrictions that would “significantly reduce the water supply available to Californians.”

Hunt said his agency has no plans to cut water deliveries for now. Instead, he said his agency is working to buy water from contractors and perhaps to secure water stored for hydroelectricity. Mark Cowin, director of the state Department of Water Resources, said his agency also has no plans to purchase water or to cut deliveries to contractors in order to bolster this summer’s flows to benefit the smelt.

Other projects outlined in the state’s smelt plan include:

▪ Aggressively eradicating nonnative aquatic weeds and reducing toxic algae blooms harmful to smelt in certain parts of the Delta.

▪ Releasing more water through the Yolo Bypass into the north Delta to create more zooplankton that smelt eat. Sacramento Valley rice farmers are already making such releases.

▪ Adding sediment, gravel and sand to key areas of the estuary to improve habitat.

▪ Operating infrastructure in the Suisun Marsh differently to congregate the fish into more-favorable areas.

▪ Restoring 5,530 acres of tidal wetlands.

▪ Providing additional funding to Sacramento-area governments to reduce stormwater contaminants polluting the estuary.

▪ No longer releasing back into the Delta any nonnative predatory fish that may eat smelt when they’re captured at state and federal fish screens.

▪ Consolidating the two small captive populations of Delta smelt into one breeding and research facility in Rio Vista.

State officials say that each of the projects outlined in the plan is scheduled to begin or be completed within the next three years.

The proposed actions come at a critical time for Delta smelt.

In early June, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife released the results of spring trawling surveys that track adult fish. The surveys found just handfuls of fish across the huge area where they are known to spawn. The low catches were a marked drop from even the record low numbers of Delta smelt tallied in 2015’s trawls.

Based on that data, federal officials say there are likely just 13,000 fish left in the estuary this year, a stunning collapse from where the fish were just four decades ago. At that time, Delta smelt were among the most numerous fish in the estuary, with populations in the millions.

Ryan Sabalow: 916-321-1264, @ryansabalow