This just in … Environmental groups ask California officials to save endangered fish in San Francisco Bay Estuary from extinction

From Defenders of Wildlife, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Bay Institute:

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With the critically endangered Delta smelt on the brink of extinction, Defenders of Wildlife, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and The Bay Institute today called upon the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) to issue emergency regulations and release the fresh water the smelt need to survive. Water is currently being diverted away from key waterways that feed the San Francisco Bay Estuary, depriving the fish of essential freshwater flows and limiting its chances of survival.

Click here to read the 12-page letter to the State Water Board.

Following are statements from Defenders, NRDC, and The Bay Institute:

Kim Delfino, California program director for Defenders of Wildlife: “Decades of state and federal agencies’ mismanagement of the San Francisco Bay Estuary, compounded by several years of drought, is causing catastrophic harm to wildlife in the estuary. The Delta smelt is circling the drain because this iconic estuary has been starved of water. We are calling on the State Water Resources Control Board to comply with its legal obligations and save this fish before it is gone forever.”

Kate Poole, Water and Wildlife Project director for the Natural Resources Defense Council: “The Delta smelt is the canary in the coal mine for the San Francisco Bay-Delta estuary, and its condition indicates that the estuary is suffocating. Water agencies failed to heed the urgent call of biologists to keep more fresh water flowing through the Delta this summer to revive the ailing habitat. Now it’s time for the State Water Board to step in and stave off extinction of the first in a long line of imperiled Delta species, including native salmon, steelhead and sturgeon.”

Gary Bobker, Rivers and Delta program director at The Bay Institute: “It’s shocking enough to realize that what was once the most common resident fish of the San Francisco Bay Estuary is now the rarest, because of decades of mismanagement that the drought has only made worse. It’s unthinkable to contemplate that the Delta smelt may go extinct this year because state and federal officials continue to fail to act on the science that shows that providing a small portion of the flow that once sustained this species – and many others now in decline – could help prevent that from happening. This unique species’ fate is in the hands of the State Water Board now.”


Delta smelt, a tiny, three- to four-inch silvery blue fish that smells like cucumbers, serve as an indicator of the health of the largest estuary on the west coast of North and South America, the only place on earth where they exist. Delta smelt were once one of the most abundant resident fish in the estuary. Because Delta smelt live only one year, they immediately reflect the ecological problems created by a massive system of dams, reservoirs and aqueducts that export water south.

Defenders of Wildlife, NRDC and The Bay Institute are calling for more freshwater flows into the estuary to provide the right mix of fresh and saltwater habitat for Delta smelt. This area is known as the low-salinity zone and it is represented by X2 – the distance of the low-salinity zone from the Golden Gate. X2 is a “metric that captures many different biological and physical effects; as the annual spring value of X2 moves towards the Golden Gate Bridge, numerous fish and plankton populations increase abundance or survival,” according to Finding the Right Balance: Managing Delta Salinity in Drought in Western Water, 2014.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), the agency responsible for managing endangered wildlife and its habitat, stated in May and June of 2016 its concerns about providing the right habitat for juvenile Delta smelt. FWS noted that the X2 was about 74 kilometers east of the Golden Gate Bridge at the time, “providing relatively good habitat,” and that ensuring X2 moves no further east than 81 kilometers east of the Golden Gate Bridge for the remainder of the summer through September was critical to the species’ survival. Lower values of X2 indicate more fresh water is flowing into the Bay.

Despite this urgent call, California’s two major water projects have failed to keep enough water in the rivers to maintain X2 west of 81 kilometers for most of the summer, meeting it on only one day since mid-June. The conservation groups are calling on the State Water Resources Control Board to release enough freshwater flows into the San Francisco Bay Estuary so that the X2 salt line doesn’t creep any further east than 81 kilometers from the Golden Gate Bridge. They are calling upon the State Water Board to make its emergency rulemaking immediately to be in place through Sept. 30, 2016 and again next year from June 1 to Sept. 30, as the latest science shows that freshwater flows in spring and summer create the right mix of salt and freshwater habitat which is important for the Delta smelt’s survival.

Federal and state water managers continue to fail to provide enough water for this fish and many others whose populations have collapsed as their habitat has been degraded. Instead too much water has been diverted away from the estuary and the wildlife that need it. The conservation groups are demanding that the board fulfill its legal obligation under the public trust doctrine to protect Delta smelt and ensure the health of our waterways before it is too late.

Defenders of Wildlife is dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities. With more than 1.2 million members and activists, Defenders of Wildlife is a leading advocate for innovative solutions to safeguard our wildlife heritage for generations to come. For more information, visit For the latest news from Defenders, follow us at @DefendersNews. To learn more about California water issues, follow Kim Delfino at @KimDelfinoDOW.

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is an international nonprofit environmental organization with more than 2 million members and online activists. Since 1970, our lawyers, scientists, and other environmental specialists have worked to protect the world’s natural resources, public health, and the environment. NRDC has offices in New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Bozeman, MT, and Beijing. Visit us at www.nrdc.organd follow us on Twitter @NRDC.

The Bay Institute is the research, policy and advocacy arm of, a nonprofit environmental organization dedicated to protecting, restoring and inspiring conservation of the ecosystems of San Francisco Bay and its watershed. Since 1981, the Bay Institute’s scientists and policy experts have worked to strengthen environmental protections, design and implement restoration activities, and reform water management practices to secure a healthy Bay and the services it provides for all Californians. To learn more about the Bay Institute, visit


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