The flow of freshwater through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to the sea is about half of what it once was. Environmental groups have strongly opposed the state project known as California WaterFix, which would construct one or two large tunnels designed to carry fresh water directly from the Sacramento River, under the delta, to aqueducts leading to southern portions of the state. They are concerned that the project could further reduce the amount of freshwater flowing through the delta, causing worsening saltwater intrusion.
Local groups such as The Bay Institute, Water4Fish, Coalition to Save the California Delta, the North Coast Rivers Alliance, AquAlliance, multiple chapters of the Sierra Club and a wide swath of state and national environmental groups have all raised the alarm that WaterFix is likely to bring on the extermination of various aquatic species.
However, in June of last year, the National Marine Fisheries Service and the United States Fish & Wildlife Service declared that the tunnels are not likely to jeopardize species in the Sacramento River delta, specifically the Delta smelt, Steelhead, and Chinook salmon, which are commonly felt to be the most threatened.
It “will not jeopardize or threaten endangered species, or adversely modify their critical habitat,” said Paul Souza, a regional director with the Fish & Wildlife Service, which is responsible for protecting Delta smelt. Regional administrator at the Fisheries Service, Barry Thom, said his agency came to the similar conclusion that the project will not increase the danger to those species.
Many environmentalists view the reports of both government agencies as having been biased by pressure from the current administration. One, who would not go on record, believes California Governor Jerry Brown would be happier if the Delta smelt went extinct. The tiny fish has proven a large obstacle for WaterFix proponents and its end would remove the most compelling argument against the proposed tunnels.
Brown’s vision seems to go hand in hand with President Trump’s in regard to the delta. During the lead up to the 2016 elections, candidate Trump stated that California was taking its fresh water supply and “shoving it out to sea…to protect a certain kind of three-inch fish.”
Due to a lack of funding, Brown and his team have refocused their efforts on building a smaller, single tunnel instead of the originally planned twin tubes. However, debris from construction could be as destructive as the encroachment of salt water. The Delta smelt’s demise would be the first fish species extinction in the United States since the Endangered Species Act was signed in 1973.