officials on Thursday halted water exports from the
Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta after rising numbers of a
rare fish, the Delta smelt, were sucked to their deaths
in the pumps.
State Department of Water Resources
officials said the action is expected to last seven to
10 days, until water conditions allow the fish to move
to safer areas. Shortages are not expected for the 25
million Californians who get water from the Delta.
But if the shutdown lasts longer, some water
agencies, mainly in the Bay Area, may have to impose
mandatory conservation or rationing measures. Many have
called on customers to adopt extra voluntary
conservation steps amid what is already one of the
driest years on record in the state.
"Nobody is going without water," said DWR Director
Lester Snow. "We will ramp up efforts for additional
conservation. We want everybody to conserve water both
because of this circumstance and the low snowpack this
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation also has shut down all
but one of the six pumps at its separate, federal Delta
water export facility, an unprecedented step.
"We have never been in the situation we are right
now," said bureau spokesman Jeff McCracken.
Bureau engineers are working to further cut the flow
while still sending enough water downstream to keep
Tracy from running dry. The city takes about half its
supply from the bureau's San Luis Canal.
This may be the first time state water exports have
been halted to protect fish. The pumps were last
silenced in 2004, and only for a couple of days, to
protect water quality after a levee break in the Delta.
The latest shutdown came after a request from the
state Department of Fish and Game, which also asked
small water users in the south Delta to halt diversions.
Fish and Game also suspended all scientific collection
of smelt except for those needed to monitor the
The smelt is a translucent, minnow-like fish that has
little commercial or recreational value. But it is a
fragile fish that lives for only one year. It is
extremely sensitive to water quality, so it is
considered a strong indicator of the health of the
The smelt has been in a steep decline for three
years, along with other species that share similar
habitat, including striped bass, threadfin shad and
longfin smelt. Biologists have been unable to explain
the decline, but blame a combination of water exports,
water contamination, and competition from wildlife not
native to Delta waters.
The Delta is the hub of the state's water system,
channeling abundant snowmelt in the north to dry regions
in the south. But that function is increasingly
threatened by crumbling levees, poor habitat and climate
"This just kind of underscores what a difficult
dynamic we have in the Delta," said Fish and Game
Director Ryan Broddrick. "The long-term health of the
state, from an environmental and economic standpoint,
requires finding a more durable solution."
The smelt are expected to move downstream to Suisun
Bay -- a safe distance from the pumps -- when the water
warms to 77 degrees. But tidal conditions and low runoff
are combining to keep them deep in the estuary. It is
unclear how long those conditions will last.
Politicians and biologists have struggled
unsuccessfully for years to balance the competing needs
of wildlife and water users, and it has become
increasingly clear that a balance cannot be struck given
how the Delta is used today.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed a panel of
experts to figure out how to re-engineer the Delta to
protect fish while it conveys water. The findings are
more than a year away.
Water users and environmentalists separately praised
the decision to cease pumping, but called for more
"This really highlights that the system is broken,"
said Jeff Kightlinger, general manager of the
Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. He
called for equally strong measures to control water
contamination and invasive species. "I believe we are at
a crisis point. This really feels like a lot of things
piling up and making it very difficult to move water in