In an editorial in the Sac Bee today, the spokesperson for the State Water Contractors objects to a ruling last week that restricts pumping through the Delta to protect Delta smelt. (The thinking behind the ruling is that smelt get churned to bits in the pumps, and also that the pumps make the Delta currents so messed up that it damages smelt habitat.) The new argument against shutting down the pumps is “But there are other problems toooo!”1
Every day, Sacramento’s wastewater treatment plant sends 13 tons of ammonia downstream to the Sacramento- San Joaquin Delta, potentially disturbing the Delta’s food web in profound and destructive ways. Agricultural runoff flows freely through the estuary’s waters. Exotic species of clams consume much of the critical food supply. Nonnative fish prey on native smelt and salmon.
Unchecked and unmanaged, these and other threats to the Delta’s fisheries are tolerated on a regular basis. Yet, in an imbalance that grows greater with every passing month, the already heavily regulated water projects in the Delta – projects that supply water to millions of California residents, businesses and farmers – get hit with restriction after restriction on water flows.
It just now occurred to me that the State Water Contractors may be hitting up against a concept that is even more engrained than “must give water to farmers”. This may be a head to head contest of “must give water to farmers” vs. “dilution is the solution to pollution.” I mean, diluting pollution is the prime historical way of dealing with water (and air) quality problems, an easy solution that makes problems temporarily go away. It is a strong and early impulse for humans. And now that we don’t know how to fix the smelt, we’re starting by throwing water at the problem. Turn off the pumps! Let water run through the Delta! Ammonia from the Sacramento? Pesticides from the San Joaquin? 2 MORE WATER for smelt! 3
I really do love seeing human verities fight it out; I’ll occasionally idly ponder which of two impulses is dominant, but you don’t often get good real world test situations. I have to confess I like watching a group that doesn’t have a track record of caring about pollution get burned by old-school pollution remedies. Perhaps if they hadn’t fought or dodged that conversation for decades, we would 1. not be in this mess or 2. have better tools to use now.
1 I find this unpersuasive. Yes, there are other problems too. But the pumps are a known major factor, and even better, under direct and centralized control. Take the major easy fix first, then work hard to address the other factors. Do not take the other factors as reason not to do anything.
2 Heh heh. I notice that the spokesperson for the State Water Contractors (farmers in the San Joaquin Valley) did not put that on her list of threats to the Delta.
3 I’m not opposed to this, by the way. This isn’t as sophisticated as, say, developing technologies and practices that keep nasty chemicals out of our rivers in the first place and addressing invasive species directly, but given that the smelt are on the verge of extinction, it seems like a pretty good crude tool to start with.