BAY-DELTA SCIENCE CONFERENCE: From California’s Water Wars to America’s Culture Wars: A Media Analysis of the Delta Smelt Controversy

In recent decades Americans’ attitudes about environmental issues have become polarized along partisan lines. Yet, while significant research demonstrates this broad trend, we know less about the meso-level processes producing and sustaining such divisions. Drawing on over 3,000 news articles, nearly 14,000 Tweets, and Google search data, Dr. Caleb Scoville, an Assistant Professor of Sociology and a 2020-2021 Neubauer Faculty Fellow at Tufts University,  analyzed the public sphere controversy surrounding the Delta smelt, an endangered species of fish caught in the center of California water politics.   At the 2021 Bay Delta Science Conference, Dr. Scoville presented the findings of his analysis.

Dr. Scoville began by hearkening back to the lead-up to the 2020 presidential election when then-President Donald Trump complained to Sean Hannity of Fox News that California has to ration water because it pours supply into the sea to ‘take care of certain little tiny fish.’

He noted that this wasn’t the first time that Trump had waded into this territory.  Back in June 2016, then-presidential candidate Trump addressed a crowd in Fresno with the claim that there is no drought, saying, ‘It is so ridiculous they are taking water the water and shoving it out to sea to protect a certain kind of three-inch fish.’

Two years prior, Congressman Devin Nunez, representing the same audience that Trump was speaking to, had blamed California’s water woes on a certain stupid little fish on the House floor. And earlier still in 2009, Sean Hannity himself pointed to the ‘incredible suffering in this region because of the government that has put the interest of a two-inch Delta smelt minnow before the people of California.’

All of this serves as an introduction to our humble protagonist, the Delta smelt, which I’m sure everyone watching here knows is an endangered species of fish found only in the Sacramento San Joaquin Delta,” said Dr. Scoville.  “The Delta smelt is controversial because of its protected status under the state and federal endangered species acts.  Its protected status has resulted in controversial curtailments of water delivered by the state and federal water projects.”

These elements of the story lend themselves to a dominant narrative about the delta smelt controversy: that conflicts over the species are best understood as simply the latest episode in California’s water wars: struggles over the distribution of a precious resource, water, he said.   

But is this a sufficient explanation?  In a world where this conflict was simply about the distribution of water, we would expect social reactions to map onto direct reductions in water supply associated with the Delta smelt protections.

How much do Delta smelt protections impact water exports?

In the 2019 paper, Clarifying Effects of Environmental Protections on Freshwater Flows to—and Water Exports from—the San Francisco Bay Estuary authored by Reis, Howard, and Rosenfeld, the researchers analyzed long-term trends in freshwater flow to San Francisco Bay and the frequency and magnitude of specific regulatory and physical constraints governing the amount of water exports from the Delta. 

They found that among the environmental regulations affecting water project operations, protections for Delta smelt are actually the smallest factor; the protections for chinook salmon had a larger impact.  Water quality protections had the most significant impact.

So protections of the Delta smelt are only one source of water curtailment and are responsible for a small set of restrictions in relative terms,” Dr. Scoville said.  “Now, of course, in absolute terms, this is still a significant quantity of water, and the effects of regulations are not equally distributed. So this grounds the following question, what is the relationship between the public sphere controversy surrounding the Delta smelt and the actual water impacts of the regulations protecting the species?

The media analysis

So using the study data, Dr. Scoville looked at how a series of measures of social interest in the Delta smelt, such as the numbers of the news articles published mentioning the Delta smelt, the relative Google Search interest in the Delta smelt, and the mentions of the Delta smelt on Twitter, or the mentions in the Delta smelt in the Congressional Record, correlated with the amount of water associated with the Delta smelt protections.

In all cases, we see either no clear correlation or a modest negative correlation between these indicators of social interest and the hydrologic measures of the regulations protecting the Delta Smelt, the opposite relationship the “water wars thesis” would predict,” he said.

Now, because the Delta smelt is often considered a ‘scape fish,’ Dr. Scoville next considered whether people were upset about the Endangered Species Act regulations in general, which include other species such as salmon, but were incorrectly attributing the effects to the Delta Smelt alone.

Here, we see that there is no evidence for this claim either,” said Dr. Scoville.  “These figures use the total Endangered Species Act regulations and also show no clear relationship.”

Of course, people probably don’t really know why there’s less water available, so perhaps it’s about water scarcity in general.  To test this, Dr. Scoville used the volume of Delta exports variable by water year and also found no clear relationship.  He noted that in three of the four plots, there is a negative relationship, as you would expect if people were blaming the Delta Smelt on experienced water scarcity, but it’s a very weak relationship with significant outliers.

So, thinking alternatively, Dr. Scoville posed the question, what if the controversy operates according to a political and media logic that is basically divorced from water policies?  In these graphs, Dr. Scoville plotted the social indicators against each other.

In all cases, we see a clear linear relationship with much higher levels of correlation, and in some cases, almost perfect,” he said.  “So, we have evidence to suggest that ordinary people’s interest (via Google searches and Twitter activity), print media interest (via news articles published), and elite political interest (via mentions in the Congressional Record) basically move in lockstep with each other, but not according to the flows of water. This, I think, supports the view that while media and political elites certainly have taken advantage of opportunities within the world of California water politics/policy, in the last decade at least, the controversy has taken on a life of its own.  As such, it’s important to understand the meaning of the Delta smelt controversy on its own terms.”

For the remainder of his presentation, Dr. Scoville focused primarily on how the Delta smelt is portrayed in traditional print media.

He built a corpus of over 3000 news articles mentioning the Delta smelt.  The opinion pieces are shown in green-ish color; the news articles are shown in red.

He noted that the news does follow substantively important policy events, pointing out the small spike in media interest when the Delta smelt was listed under the Endangered Species Act and an explosion of interest after the 2007 decision when Judge Wanger ruled the Delta smelt biological opinion was faulty and must be rewritten.

So while the Wanger decision was an important media event in its own right, in what follows, I want to show you that the overall shape of the controversy has less to do with water than we might initially think,” said Dr. Scoville.

To conduct this analysis, he identified 680 opinion pieces mentioning the Delta smelt, read them, and coded them across several qualitative variables.  

The first was on their position on environmental protections: those that take a positive stance toward environmental protections; those that are ambiguous, often calling for balance or berating politicians for not solving the problem; and those that take a negative view toward environmental protections. He noted there are many of these categories, but the anti-environmental category was the largest. He also coded them for whether or not their main topic was California Water or not; unsurprisingly, most were.

When we bring these variables together, important associations emerge, however,” said Dr. Scoville.  “Compared to pro-environmental pieces, anti-environmental opinions mentioning the Delta smelt were actually more than six times more likely to not principally be about California Water. In other words, defenders of the environment are likely to argue about the Delta smelt in concrete terms, whereas opponents are much more likely to use the Delta smelt as an example or an illustration of some other problem. This suggests that the Delta smelt has much more cultural significance for opponents of environmental protections; its meaning is not simply about water.”

What does that actually look like? Below is an example of how the Delta smelt has been woven seamlessly into broader partisan narratives.  He noted the writer is a resident of Florida, not California.

Dr. Scoville reminded that the Delta smelt accounts for a significantly smaller proportion of water curtailment than its more charismatic counterpart, the chinook salmon. Given that the protections of these species are indistinguishable to laypeople and even most experts, he then counted which opinion pieces that mentioned the Delta smelt also mentioned salmon.

While most do not, over a third do mention them together,” he said.  “When breaking these down by position, a striking pattern emerges. Pro-environmental pieces tend to mention the species together. And the vast majority of anti-environmental opinion articles do not. So if you’re going to denounce the environmental protections of the Delta smelt, it’s better not to mention its more charismatic cousins. And it’s easy to see why.  The Delta smelt’s small size and lack of charisma is often mobilized rhetorically by political elites, including Sarah Palin, for whom it was a three-inch baitfish, and similarly for Ted Cruz, who fantasized out loud about eating them with cheese and crackers in 2016.”

Another important factor to consider is where the opinions are being published.  Not surprisingly, the vast majority are from California. He acknowledged his sampling procedure could have exacerbated that; he started with a major news database and then added several other major California newspapers that were excluded.  The slide breaks down the number of opinion articles originating in California by region, showing that the articles were concentrated in the north-central and central regions and to a lesser extent in the other heavily populated areas.

Breaking down opinions by geography, Dr. Scoville calculated net sentiment by subtracting the number of anti-environmental articles from the number of pro-environmental ones in each region and dividing that number by the total number of articles in each region. He applied an alpha parameter to visually adjust for quantity, so regions with fewer articles are more transparent.

The regional breakdown shows that there is indeed a local California story here, and geographically it reflects about what you’d expect,” he said.  “However, note that the skew is actually heavily in the direction of positive articles published in the North Central Region. There are 57 more positive than negative opinion articles in the North Central Region in terms of raw counts, but only 23 more negative than positive in the Central region. So in other words, what stands out more than anti-environmental opinion in the south, is actually pro-environmental opinion in the north.”

It’s only by bringing in opinion articles published outside of the state that we can see why the debate appears to be tilted toward anti-environmental voices,” he said.  “Opinions published outside of California are much more negative about environmental protections. This suggests that the controversy’s political appeal is being driven, at least in part, by its resonance with national political discourses, not merely a play of local interests.  Here, the raw counts show that if we were to remove all of the publications outside of California, there would actually be fewer anti-environmental pieces than pro-environmental pieces, even though this is an issue that concerns California alone. “

And further, he noted that pieces published outside of California are several times more likely not to be about California water at all, instead, using the Delta smelt as an example for an illustration of something else (lower left).

Relatedly, opinion articles outside of California are more likely not to mention salmon (above right).

So writers outside of California are more likely to discuss the Delta smelt in isolation than its broader context,” he said.   

How the Delta smelt became a national controversy

How did the Delta smelt become a national controversy, rather than merely a regional one? Dr. Scoville said he only has time to suggest an answer today, but it’s a powerful suggestion nonetheless.

This figure shows monthly Google Search interest in the Delta smelt relative over time.  The large peak in September 2009 corresponds to Sean Hannity’s expose on the Delta smelt.  

Hannity’s focus on the Delta smelt brought the species out of obscurity, making it a symbol for all that was supposed to be wrong with California, with liberals, and with environmentalism,” he said.  “In so doing, Hannity did not merely report on a controversy; he helped create it.  In this sense, I understand him to be playing the role of an entrepreneur of political division. This work makes it possible for people who are no way materially impacted by the Delta smelt to feel like they have a stake in the problem.

Relatedly, Congressman Devin Nunez, who appeared on Hannity’s special, refers to the Delta smelt not merely as a stupid little fish, but ‘their’ stupid little fish. And with this move, the Delta smelt controversy becomes a medium whereby California Water politics becomes enrolled into a much larger national politics of us versus them.”

So my suggestion is that we view the Delta Smelt controversy, not simply as an episode in California’s so-called water wars, but perhaps even more importantly, a political symbol within America’s broader culture wars,” said Dr. Scoville.  “Within this context, the meaning of the Delta smelt is that ‘out of touch liberals in faraway cities care more about their stupid little fish than they care about ordinary people like you.’  This meaning is an achievement of skilled entrepreneurs of political division. They did not invent the problem out of whole cloth. They took advantage of the species status as an uncharismatic microfauna and of real events in California water policy. However, the species is no now part of a broader emotionally charged partisan politics of “us” versus “them,” that has little to do with water.”

Thinking of it this way places the delta smelt in relation to a broader tactical repertoire of anti-environmental politics and climate change denial that exploits and hardens emotional sources of cultural resentment at the expense of thorny policy decisions. We saw something similar in the aftermath of February’s deadly storms in Texas, which were blamed incorrectly on Green Energy. It’s a strategy of blaming environmental problems on environmentalists via evocative political symbolism.”



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