California drought: Delta smelt survey finds a single fish, heightening debate over water supply

San Jose Mercury News
15 April 2015

BYRON — There’s only one place left on Earth where imperiled Delta smelt are thriving, where their water remains cold and clean.

In the wild, the fish is on the brink of extinction. This month, in their April trawl survey, state Fish and Wildlife scientists caught only one of the pinky-sized, politicized fish with an outsized role in California’s water wars, an alarming indication of just how few smelt are left. And the drought may inflict the final blow.

But here in this UC Davis-run hatchery, large tanks are filled with thousands of baby smelt — where, for now, they’ll stay, generation after generation — because the Delta’s warm, brackish and polluted water is too inhospitable.

The fate of this fish — wild or forever captive — throws into question the future of one of the world’s most contentious plumbing systems: the 700,000-acre Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, the nexus of water moving from the state’s north to south.

In the fourth year of a historic drought, biologists are issuing desperate pleas to devote Delta water for those few wild creatures that remain — not just Delta smelt, but also longfin smelt, Sacramento splittail, Sacramento perch, river lamprey, green sturgeon, Central Valley steelhead trout and spring and winter runs of chinook salmon. It’s not just about saving a single species, they say, but about saving a precious ecosystem.

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