Contra Costa Times Editorial: Supreme Court’s Smelt Decision Was Not Surprise

Contra Costa Times–It took all of, oh, a couple of minutes for big water districts in the Central Valley to criticize last week’s U.S. Supreme Court for choosing fish over people. If only it were that easy.

Farmers and cities in the Central Valley and Southern California like to dumb down the argument to just that — the Delta smelt vs. the thirsty masses.

But it’s not just about the 3-inch fish. The smelt don’t get much support because they’re not even a sport fish like the more celebrated salmon.

Delta smelt, though, are a marker species, the canary in the Delta coal mine. When they start going away, the Delta ecosystem is in bad shape. That’s what the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said back in 2008 and what the Supreme Court upheld last week.

The Fish and Wildlife Service opinion prompted restrictions on pumping from the Delta to farmers and cities down south. The farmers and cities howled. Whoever heard of a Delta smelt, and why are they more important than people?

Well, first, that argument ignores whether anybody south of the Delta should have any expectation whatsoever that they were entitled to that water more than the salmon, steelhead, sturgeon, striped bass, sea lions — and yes, the smelt — that rely on at least some fresh water flowing out of the rivers and into the Pacific Ocean.

Farms and cities were plopped down in arid deserts without much thought given to reliable water supplies. They figured the faucet would always be turned on. Bad assumption.

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