Bipartisanship Can Save The Delta Smelt

Photo Courtesy Of USFWS Pacific Southwest Region

The unassuming delta smelt, a silvery fish measuring five to seven centimeters long, has become the center of the debate over California’s water usage. The species populates the San Joaquin River Delta and San Francisco Bay in Northern California. With an average life span of one year, the delta smelt’s short life cycle allows biologists to study the health of the ecosystem reflected through population trends. 

Studies reveal the delta smelt population has steadily declined in the face of California’s recent droughts, prompting the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to declare the species endangered. Protections placed on the fish have limited farmers’ access to the delta water, creating controversy and concern, with the agriculture community claims growing food ought to take precedence over protecting a species of fish while environmentalists stress the importance of preserving the ecosystem.

President Donald Trump brought the delta smelt back into headlines when he announced on Oct. 22 that he planned to weaken protections of the delta smelt to further increase farmers’ access to the delta water. This plan threatens an already fragile species, before the announcement, biologist Peter Moyle said that “[t]he probability of the delta smelt surviving the next 3 years is relatively low.” Trump’s decision diminishes those odds even further, leading to a drier delta and a harsher habitat, in which the delta smelt will struggle to survive.

Lawmakers should balance environmental concerns with concerns for public welfare and economics, rather than completely disregard either issue. Creative legislation allows for more comprehensive solutions to problems.

When it comes to water supply, the complex relationship between supply, demand and politics suggests inevitable disappointment. Trump’s actions contribute to a pattern of unwillingness to compromise on similar issues. Biologist Tina Swanson commented, “It’s a combination of Mother Nature, poor planning, and mismanaging of the water supply. Now everybody’s hurting.” The delta smelt crisis reflects the tangible consequences of politicized approaches to handling eco-crises.

When lobbyists, law makers and administrators turn vital questions about ecosystems and natural resources into political tools, they shift the focus from creative problem solving to cheap political victories. The Trump administration has not presented a thoughtful solution that balances environmental and economic interests,. Rather, they have made a declaration to prove a point. Trump’s actions speak mainly about allegiance to big businesses, not concerns about how to best administer resources on a state level.

When dealing with problems of sustainability and the environment, partisan decision-making produces limited results. The inability to acknowledge the importance of the opposing issue slows the legislative process, thus worsening the crisis. In the Bay Area, populations of the delta smelt and California king salmon decline yearly while law-makers refuse to make definitive, permanent decisions. Historically, up to a million Californian king salmon returned to the central valley in the autumn. By 2009, less than 100,000 returned. This decline illustrates the inability of past government strategies to effectively protect the wildlife in the delta-ecosystem. And the pattern will only continue in the wake of Trump’s recent decision.

Alternatives to blatant partisan decision making may give hope to the delta smelt. Laws enforcing wiser water usage, such as mandated drip irrigation, and improvements to water distribution systems could better combat the overarching problem without harming the delta habitat. These methods better distribute the water available since they make the most of California’s limited resources without sacrificing the well-being of people or habitats. Though added constraints on farmers may cause unrest, more efficient water usage can ultimately benefit the entire state for decades to come. 

The Trump administration threatens the health of the delta ecosystem and the health of California residents by removing water from the delta. Though small, the delta smelt represent the fragility of habitats that brush up against urbanity—habitats that ought to be protected by our laws, even if that means finding creative ways to support modern agriculture. We can and must save the delta smelt. 

Emily Anderson is a second- year English major. She can be reached at enander1@uci.edu.