Tiny Fish Launches a Big Crisis Over Water in California

A federal judge has ordered California to cut the water it pumps from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta by a third next year to protect an endangered fish. Two-thirds of Californians get their water from the Delta. The judge's order has pushed state lawmakers feet-first into a debate about water - where to get it, how to use it and how to save it.

Julie Small: It's hard to believe a tiny fish could plug up the water supply for 25 million people. But that's exactly what'll happen if California can't find a way to protect the Delta Smelt.

Dave Contreras: We try to get the net down as far as possible; that way we get a wider range of fish species.

Small: Smell the smelt, says biologist Dave Contreras. It doesn't smell fishy. It smells like cucumber.

Contreras: Smell it!

Small: Contreras knows the endangered Delta Smelt well. He's spent the last three years trawling for smelt for the Department of Fish and Game.

Contreras: ... then we note the depth, then we also have a flow meter reading...

Small: The Delta is California's faucet. About two-thirds of California uses water pumped from here. But the state releases less of it when the smelt are migrating so the fish aren't sucked into the pumps that send water to Central and Southern California.

Joe Christen: Zero! (laughs)

Small: This spring, the Delta Smelt population fell to an all-time low, so California stopped pumping water out of the Delta for two weeks. A federal judge then ordered the state to pump a third less during spawning season next year – which is also the rainy season in California. But it's not the fish's fault. Former state lawmaker Phil Isenberg chairs the Delta Vision Task Force.

Phil Isenberg: It isn't raining more. It isn't snowing more. The amount of water we have in the state – and we have records going back for 116 years – is kind of flat. But as the populations grown, demand's grown, California's become very environmental conscious in the last 50 years. All of those things have meant that various interest competing for supply that's not growing.

Small: CALFED is the joint agency that has to balance the interests of 220 government and environmental groups with a stake in what happens to the Delta's water. CALFED's Keith Coolidge shows me an example of the challenge.

Keith Coolidge: These are two very large steel gates that are raised and lowered to allow water from the Sacramento River to move into the heart of the Delta.

Small: The gates are supposed to let California pump water out of the Delta without endangering the fish.

Coolidge: Fish like water that has a lot of organic material in it as a food source. And of course, for drinking water you want as little organic material as possible. The fish species the estuary is where salt water and fresh water mix. For drinking water you want them as fresh as possible.

Small: When the fish are spawning, the gates close to keep water brackish. When the fish are gone, the gates open up to let in more fresh water.

Coolidge: For seven years through CALFED, we've tried to see if there wasn't a way to make both of them work together. And increasingly, science is pointing the way that it would be better to separate the two than to try to work the same system equally well for both purposes.

Small: A fact born out by the dwindling Delta Smelt count. The Department of Fish and Game's day of trawling produces a catch of...

Contreras: Oh and look!

Small: One Delta Smelt the size of a pinky.

Small: Oh my god, it really does smell like cucumber.
Contreras: There you go!

Small: Biologist Dave Contreras lets me snap a photo of it before he bags it for scientific study. Lab researchers will dissect it for signs of other smelt killers, like toxins or industrial pollutants, urban runoff or climate change.

Contreras: A couple of years ago it wasn't like this.

Small: The Delta Smelt is the canary in the coal mine: a sign that it's time to do something about Delta, and about the way we use its water, says Phil Isenberg with the Delta Vision Task Force.

Isenberg: It's probably fair to say that the water exported from the Delta is or could be close to the peak of the amount of water that is reasonably exportable, if you want to have any hope of saving the Delta.

Small: State lawmakers are looking for ways to keep enough water in the Delta to save the smelt. That's great for the fish, but Phil Isenberg says it's not nearly enough to save California. He says with a population boom on its way, California ought to conserve, recycle, or even ration water, and we better start right now.