Crazifornia: Delta smelt refuse to die in pumps

Laer Pearce Author, Crazifornia
Font Size:

In Tracy, California, where the massive California Water Project pumps stand ready to move up to 15,450 cubic feet of Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta water southward every single second, it’s been a busy spring.

The pumps have been a mere shadow of their old selves ever since U.S. District Court Judge Oliver Wanger began ratcheting them down in 2007 in response to environmentalist lawsuits brought under the auspices of the Delta smelt. The environmentalists blamed the pumping for the precipitous drop in the smelt population, ignoring any number of other Delta ills that could be decimating the little fish, including ammonia from Sacramento’s sewage plant, farm chemical runoff and hungry non-native bass prized by the very sports fishermen who joined the environmentalists in blaming the pumps.

But the 2010-2011 storm season has been a wet one, with about twice the average rainfall and snowfall. That, and his growing skepticism of the adequacy of the science justifying restrictions on pumping, has loosened Judge Wanger’s grip on Southern California’s spigot, and the pumps have been running at up to 80 percent of their capacity. As the water rushes out of the Delta and toward the pumps, it’s channeled through an ingenious series of sieve-lines designed to keep the smelt away. In a nearby building, traps catch any that do get through, and whenever the pumps are running, state employees stand ready to count any dead smelt — and if even a few are found, the pumps can be stopped or slowed down.

So what have they found? With all those pumps spinning away and all that water hurtling south, smelt corpses should be piling up as fast as debt in D.C. Any other result would cast the scientific theories of the smelt’s champions as not much better than alchemy and astrology, right?

Right. According to Tom Philp, executive strategist for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (the user of most of that water), the sum total smelt body count since they switched on the California Water Project pumps is zero.

Philp says turbidity — muddy water — saved the smelt. Since big fish like to eat little fish, smelt like to hide in turbid water, and Delta turbidity this year has been far from the pumps. The muddy conditions in the Delta caused by this year’s high runoff levels from the mountains couldn’t come at a better time, because Judge Wanger recently gave the slow-moving biolocrats (or is it burologists?) at the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service two more years to clean up their science or give up trying to justify continued pumping restrictions.

If it can be shown that pumping levels should be controlled by the proximity of turbid water to the pumps instead of fish counts in non-turbid water or, for that matter, where we happen to be in the smelt’s reproductive cycle, much more water will be able to move south than can now. The volume of data supporting the turbidity theory as a viable alternative to the “the pump ate my fish” theory favored by the environmentalists is growing, but no one expects Gaea’s Army to meekly retreat.

Instead, we fully expect new environmentalist legal motions and “scientific” studies to be falling as thick as last winter’s snow in the Sierras. This is California, after all.

Laer Pearce, a veteran of three decades of California public affairs, is currently working on a book that shows how everything wrong with America comes from California.