Orange County Branch Newsletter

January 2008

Secretary's Column

So, what’s a Delta Smelt, anyway??

By Ziad Y. Mazboudi, PE

In this day and age, when everything seems to be going wrong, drought, global warming, bridges collapsing, fires-I could keep going, but I won’t-I couldn’t believe my eyes when I read about the delta smelt. 

The delta smelt is a small (generally 2-3 inches), steely blue and nearly translucent fish.  Delta smelt live 1-2 years, feed exclusively on plankton, and, amazingly, smell like cucumbers. The species is endemic to the upper San Francisco Bay and the Delta, meaning it is found nowhere else on Earth. Unfortunately, the place it calls home is a place in crisis. And that is cause for concern, even if you don’t happen to be a delta smelt.

The Delta–where the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers converge before flowing into the Bay–is the heart of the Bay watershed and the hub for much of the state’s freshwater supply.  Two in three Californians– some 23 million people– depend on the system for at least part of their water.  

The Delta troubles are manifold. Once a vast and ecologically abundant inland marsh, it was diked and channelized starting in the 1800s. Today, many of its islands have subsided as much as 20 feet below sea level behind aging levee systems, putting farms, homes, our water supply, and human lives at risk (think hurricane Katrina).  The rivers flowing into the Delta have been dammed, and water quality suffers due to pesticides and other pollutants from Central Valley and Delta farms.  Native species like the smelt are in steep decline, and invasives are taking over. And more and more people are moving into the Delta, building houses on land better suited for flood bypasses or tidal marsh restoration.

Then there are the giant pumps.  They suck in water with the force of a large river, squashing the smelt against–or pulling them right through–screens meant to keep them out of the facilities.  Furthermore, by extracting so much fresh water, the process alters the unique chemical composition of the system and disrupts the seasonal ebb and flow of salty and fresh water– natural rhythms that serve as vital cues for migration and spawning for the smelt and other species.  

Well, a judge just voted in favor of the smelt and will require the pumps, some of which provide us with drinking water, to shut down at certain times of the year.  Now you might not realize it, but about 60% of Metropolitan Water District’s water comes from the Delta.  This is serious!!  We need to conserve and reduce over-irrigation but losing that much water could still be catastrophic to Southern California.  Not that many people realize the potential problem we are getting into as a result of the drought and the smelt, and people still had their sprinklers running when it was raining!  We all need to make significant changes to our water usage, we need to learn to reduce the amount of lawn we plant in projects, and instead plant drought tolerant plants, California native plants, use smart timers and rain sensors so sprinklers shut down when it rains.

When I started to write this article, I didn’t know much about the delta smelt, and my first reaction was:” Who cares!”, but then, one should think what’s next.  If the smelt is gone, then another small fish could be next, and the fish that eats that other small fish will start dying as it lost its food source.  This can go on and on, and this is how eco-systems get impacted.

There are more endangered species that affect our lives, such as the least bell vireo, a small bird, or the arroyo toad, or did you even know that there is an endangered fly—yes, the Delhi Sands flower-loving fly.  Each one of them is protected for a reason.  We don’t like dealing with them when we have to develop or design a project in an area where they exist, but if we play by the rules, whether we like them or not, it is for the good of all.

It is easy to say: “who cares about the smelt!”, but we should be careful and think about the big picture. 

I keep finding myself writing about environmental issues, as I deal with these issues regularly, and some of them are ones that impact a lot of us, personally and professionally, and should be kept in mind.

Finally, I hope everyone had a great Holidays Season, and I wish you all a great new year, more rain to end the drought, and an energized economy to bring more work for all of us.