We've never been fans of environmental science when it comes to the Delta Smelt. Sure, the enviros have used their sloppy science to take water from farmers in the Valley, but they've never been able to defend their sloppy science in a court of law (Agency's Smelt Plan 'Arbitrary' Judge Rules).
As farmers we never thought we'd have to become marine biologists, but we find ourselves trying to figure out what's really going on with the Delta because no matter how much Central Valley water goes to help the smelt, the worse the smelt seem to get. How can this be?
So, we were very interested when one of our readers sent us a radio interview from Food Chain Radio with Dr. Mary Winfrey, identified only as a retired government research scientist, who has her own theories about the smelt. Now, we don't want to put our reputations on the line for a scientist we don't know, but given the arbitrary nature of environmental science, her theory sounds as good as theirs.
We have transcribed the hour-long interview for you below where you can read it, and also provided a link if you prefer to listen, but we will try to sum it up as best we can if you want the Reader's Digest version.
As a scientist Dr. Winfrey had to ask herself why "the smelt were disappearing out in the Delta, but there were other fish in the Delta that were not in trouble. If it was simply pollution or a simple explanation all the fish ought to go down. Instead only the trout, salmon, steelhead, and the smelt which belonged to the salmon family, they're a salmonoid, were going down. And what I found was a virus." That's right, a virus. It had nothing to do with the water flowing through the Delta. The virus spread from North to South, from Alaska slowly down the West Coast through Washington, Oregon, California's Delta and now all the way down to South America. So, while we were curtailing the pumping, we found the salmon/smelt problem had nothing to do with what the pumps were doing. By the way, the recovery is now under way from North to South and the salmon are making a comeback.
Now, here's the good part. The pumps "carried fresh drinking grade water, minimum treatment needed to clean it up, across gravel and reed beds, that's where there are plants and they created a current that was a natural hatchery." You got that right. The water being moved by having the pumps on created a natural hatchery. The pumps "created the perfect spawning grounds for Delta Smelt." When they turned off the pumps, they turned off the hatchery.
Dr. Winfrey's conclusion: "You need the pumps on to keep the bottom clean and oxygenated. Otherwise, algae and bacteria grow in there. The lake becomes stagnant. The eggs cannot be laid in dirty bacteria-filled stagnant water. So they needed to keep the pumps on and leave them on, because this had been part of the smelt cycle for sixty years. The pump's been off, and the fish levels continue to drop. There's still a chance to save them, but we'll need to set things back in order. We need to get the pumps back on."
And that's not all. She says the pumps and water system of the Central Valley have created an ecosystem for hundred of miles south of the Delta that's been in place for over 50 years. When you turn off the pumps, you shut down the entire ecosystem, killing other animals, some of them endangered.
That's the gist of it. Turn the pumps on to save the smelt, and other endangered species as well.
Here's a link if you want to listen.
Radio interview with Research Biologist Mary Winfree
Food Chain Radio/Michael Olson
To save the endangered Delta smelt federal judge Oliver Wanger turned off the water in California's San Joaquin Valley. This put tens of thousands out of work and turned hundreds of thousands of acres into dust. But then along comes Mary, who says the smelt can save California if we turn the water back on. To save a tiny fish called the Delta smelt Federal District Judge Oliver Wanger had the water turned off in California's Central Valley, at least the San Joaquin part of it. As a consequence of this order billions of dollars have been lost and tens of thousands have been forced out of work and hundreds of thousands of acres have been turned to dust, and yet the Delta smelt still are in decline. Then along comes Mary, who one day stopped by a roadside stand in the San Joaquin Valley. She asked the seller if It was normal for her to see so much dust and the seller said they turned off our water to save the fish. This experience led Mary who had some time on her hands to begin asking questions about endangered species. What is the real reason for the decline of salmon, steelhead and smelt? Why do Delta smelt swim fifty miles up the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers through a man-made channel into a man-made lake to get caught up in a man-made pump? Why after turning off the pumps are the Delta smelt still in decline and finally, can the Delta smelt be saved by turning the pumps back on? We have Mary herself. Mary is Doctor Mary Winfrey, retired primary research scientist with the United States of America. Doctor Mary welcome to the food chain.
Mary: Thank you very much for inviting me.
Michael: So happy to have you aboard. Today you're going to bring a different word about what we've done to the San Joaquin Valley. Indeed, I guess the opposing viewpoint to the dominant viewpoint, which is now in force via federal district judge Oliver Wanger who said turn the water off. Doctor Mary is saying turn the water back on.
This is getting to where we want to go with you. You are a person that knows how to ask questions and what led you to ask the question about the Delta smelt?
Mary: Well, there seemed to be relatively little biology involved in the situation and a lot of interesting questions. For example, the Delta smelt is considered a threatened species. That's a legal definition, a group of lawyers and the judge decided that in nineteen ninety three… it was a threatened species, but there was a question about the species itself.
Michael: Did anybody ask the question?
Mary: Apparently not. And if they had, they might have gotten a few laughs. McAlister named the Delta smelt, he decided it was not pond smelt andhe gave it a name and he called it, hypomesus which means below the line, the measurement line, or smelt. That's the name for all smelt, Hypomesus Transpacifica. This means across or around the Pacific. In other words, this was a smelt found around the Pacific, and to make sure that you knew this, the Delta smelt, he specifically named Hypomesus Transpacifica Transpacifica. The Delta smelt found around the Pacific around the Pacific.
Michael: Which is to say around the Pacific then?
Mary: You do find Hypomesus Pacifica in the Mekong Delta. They raise it and harvest it in Korea. They raise it for caviar in Japan and as a matter of fact, back in nineteen fifty nine we were running low on our native smelt. They had put in a lot of salmon, the salmon really like it and to make the salmon happy they brought in several billion eggs from Japan and they released them, and they hatched into hypomesus transpacifica. They renamed them Nipanimsus so you would know it was from Japan. Well, the two smelts met each other and they fell in love. Now the smelt only lives about one year but here we are forty and fifty years later, and there are lots and lots of hybrids. There's a whole rainbow of different hybrids.
Michael: Mary we/re talking little bit about whether the Delta smelt is in fact an endangered species. Here's a fish that has been hybridized with other smelt from around the Pacific, and so it's kind of like there are a rainbow of varieties of smelt, so is in the Delta smelt, in fact, endangered?
Mary: Well, let's call it, first of all, it is considered threatened, legally, that's a legal definition. That was in nineteen ninety three, a judge declared it threatened. Biologically it's an endangered sub-species. It's not really a species. A species is defined as a group of animals that can breed successfully together. For example, if you have a dog and cat and you try and mate them, they do not have any offspring, and there's no puppies. That's because they're different species. Now you can take a horse and a donkey and you get a sterile mule. they both belong to the group equus. They are genetically different enough that their offspring cannot reproduce, but you can take a Herford milk cow and a Black Angus beef cow and you can crossbreed them, and you produce calves that can mate with with all the other types of cows there are. They are a species. The fact that our smelt can breed successfully with Hypomemes Transpacificas overseas says that the Delta smelt is a subspecies or variety.
Michael: So when we/re talking about legal definitions we can't really say that the Delta Smelt is an endangered species because it's not a species.
Mary: Well, biologically it's not a species, but legally because the judge and jury decided or at least the judge did, it is considered a threatened species, and if the numbers are going down, and since it only lives for one year it's considered a canary for the Delta.
Michael: Which is to say the Delta is in trouble.
Mary: The Delta is in trouble, or at least the smelt is in trouble.
Michael: That is an interesting point to be picked up just a little bit. First I want to go to the real reason for the decline of salmon, steelhead and their tiny little cousin, the smelt.
Mary: I had to ask that question because while the smelt was disappearing out in the Delta, there were other fish in the Delta that were not in trouble. The green sturgeon and the bass populations were going up. The sturgeon's a bottom feeder and the bass is a top feeder, so if it was simply pollution or a simple explanation all the fish ought to go down. Instead only the trout, salmon, steelhead, and the smelt which belonged to the salmon family, they're a salmonoid, were going down. And what I found was a virus.
Michael: Now, you found this virus. Did anybody else find ths virus?
Mary: Definitely. That's how I found out about it. In two thousand and one, the virus which came from Russia and was brought in by waterbirds at Alaska. It knocked out seventeen hatcheries and it got approximately seventy five to eighty five percent of the wild salmon of all different species. It got them in fresh water, and it got them in sea water. This virus moved down the coast. In two thousand and three it was in British Columbia. In two thousand and five it was on the Sacramento River and the Klamath and in two thousand and six Nimbus hatchery, which is our our big steelhead producer lost something like two million babies in a very very short time, which they attributed to high water levels and salmon virus. This virus has now moved on down the coast and is taking out the third largest salmon hatchery complex and natural salmon in Chile.
Michael: Well Mary, what we were told is that farmers were using too much water.
Mary: It wasn't a water problem or would've affected the other fish. Now, up in Alaska they didn't have the dams and they didn't have a water flow problem but they lost salmon. British Columbia did not have a flow problem, and they didn't have problems with warmer waters, although they had the same situation that would be on the Klamath. When they lost fish on the Klamath, it wasn't because of the dams, it was because of the virus and the virus is trackable and one of the sad things is that there didn't seem to be much communication between the hatcheries, so that as each one got it they were blamed for being non- hygienic or using the wrong practices when it was actually things that they had used for the last nearly hundred years, had been doing in trout farming since eighteen seventy, right here in California, so the practices had worked right up until the virus hit.
Michael: And the virus just moved like a slow burning fire from Alaska all they way down the coast and now it's way down there in South America. Are the salmon starting to come back?
Mary: In Alaska they are starting to get some good salmon runs, finally. This year we finally had a decent steelhead run. This is the first year the steelhead have started to come back. This means that the virus has burned its way through and now we're seeing recovery.
Michael: Now was this virus figured in the calculations in respect to turning the water off to the San Joaquin Valley?
Mary: They didn't even think about it, they never asked about it. They thought that because they had turned off agricultural pumps about twelve years ago down at Suisun when they had a problem with seawater invading, they thought that turning off pumps would solve any kind of problem on the Sacramento. And so since It worked down at Suison for their saltwater it would work for the Smelt in the Delta, and regrettably it didn't. We've had the pumps off and on, almost three years now. We've had them off during high water, and during low water and the smelt continued to decline.
Michael: Hold that thought and take me back to the calculations for for this incredible decision to turn off the water. You're saying that there nobody came to the table and said, this could be caused by a virus?
Mary: No it was not even even considered and I was vaguely aware of the virus, because wearing a different hat than research, I had gone up with my air guard unit to Alaska in two thousand one and being the new person on base, they stuck me with the rather unpleasant job of looking at the dead fish. They reported there were dead salmon on base and could they eat them? I said no, no, don't eat them. Let's go look. My first thought was there had been a spill or maybe they were poisoned, but we could find no record or chemical evidence, no chemical fingerprint of anything that could hurt them. When we went off-base there were also dead salmon. So I went over to a fish hatchery and I asked the hatchery master do you know anything about dead fish. He said "I don't want to talk to you."
Michael: Luckily we have Doctor Mary Winfrey who is a research scientist for the United States of America and she's looking at these fish and what does she see Mary?
Mary: She sees the hatchery master and said do you know anything about the dead fish? He said I don't want to talk to you because I have lost all my hatchlings, and it's not my fault, it's not uncleanliness. It was a virus. It was brought in by water birds. We lost them. We restarted them, and we lost them again. And that's when I found out that there were seventeen hatcheries that had been affected by this.
Michael: And it wasn't because of lack of water?
Mary: And it wasn't because the water was warm or cold or polluted, it was because of a virus and that's an important thing, and then we realized that it was hitting British Columbia, when some of the group that were trying to keep the water turned off said that they had to have the water off to save the endangered orca's, that there were orca's down in the Delta. Well, that really surprised us. Killer whales are not a normal species for the Delta, but we thought something must have given them this idea, and I had a friend Sue Miller, who's with the Las Lopas Marine preserve and she tracks whales and she recognized the pod. There were orca's down in the bay. They had come down looking deformed as if they had peanut shaped heads, because they were starving. They had lost so much body fat that they had changed shape and we found out this was because there were no salmon. They would normally be feeding and fattening on salmon. They did not belong to the Delta. They were just down there looking for anything and they ended that particular pod off of the area near Hearst Castle and they fed on baby elephant seals which are an endangered species.
Michael: So the solution to all this disappearing salmon is always turn off the water.
Mary: Regrettably, yes.
Michael: Okay, take us down to the Delta. Now why do delta smelt swim fifty miles up the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers through man-made channels into a man-made lake to get caught up in a man-made pump?
Mary: The pumps go back sixty years.
Michael: So the pumps go back six decades.
Mary: But they of course put in newer one pumps, the current one is at least twenty years old, but during this time, what the pumps did was important. The pumps carried fresh drinking grade water, minimum treatment needed to clean it up, across gravel and reed beds, that's where there are plants and they created a current that was a natural hatchery. If you study salmon and trout hatching you find what they do keep the eggs viable to keep them alive is you move currents of water across them, and apparently the smelt was able to recognize good conditions. We can look at how they breed the caviar in Japan and how they set up breeding conditions, and they can even get their little smelt to lay eggs on reed mats by having the right temperature and water conditions.
Michael: So what we did in building this pump to pump water uphill into the San Joaquin Valley, we created the perfect spawning grounds for Delta smelt.
Mary: At least the smell thought so because they would keep returning there, and one of the reasons for turning the pumps off was they reported that baby fish were getting caught in the pumps. That meant they had been laying eggs nearby. The pump does not pull water fifty miles away. Those fish had to be right there, and local, and it looks like what happened when they turned off the pumps was they turned off the hatchery and they need to keep the pumps on. Why? During the summer there's no fish laying eggs. You need the pump on to keep the bottom clean and oxygenated. Otherwise, algae and bacteria grow in there. The lake becomes stagnant. The eggs cannot be laid in dirty bacteria-filled stagnant water. So they needed to keep the pumps on and leave them on, because this had been for sixty or more years part of the smelt cycle.
Michael: So, we in the plumbing of our San Joaquin Valley, built the perfect smelt hatchery and the smelt took advantage of that for sixty years and went there, swam all the way up. That's fifty miles, a long way for a two inch fish.
Mary: And this is a weak swimming fish and they are swimming against the current of the Sacramento River.
Michael: So the smelt really wanted to go to the pump to lay its eggs.
Mary: That is correct and they have put in salvage sections where they could recapture the fish they would release them further down and they would come back up and they like that area. They are a membe of the salmon family. They remember where they successfully bred before and they try and return to it.
Michael: Just like people?
Mary: Once they learn that that's what they do and it also helped the other canals where they were breeding because there was a little flow there and when you cut off the pump, the great beating heart of the Delta stopped.
Michael: And what happens to the smelt that go there to breed?
Mary: Well, apparently it had not been successful. The pump 's been off, and the fish levels continue to drop. There's still a chance to save them, but we'll need to set things back in order. We need to get the pumps back on. They do need to clean up pollution. They do have problems.
Michael: Let me back up a little bit. Have you pointed out this interesting observation of yours to any of the powers that be with respect to turning the water off? Have you gone to them and said tto them excuse me judge excuse me jury, but there's this interesting fact about the pumps that you just turned off, which is where the smelt go to breed. Have you have put that on the table?
Mary: I've suggested it to a few people but there hasn't been too much interest. They felt it was more politically expedient to continue the law as it is currently being played out, although that has been an interesting thing in itself… Feinstein was able to restore twenty five percent of the water to the farmers and accordingly cost them a couple of other congressmen out in the Valley and they came on public radio and explained that this was in exchange for their vote for Obama care.
Michael: So we turned off the water to the San Joaquin Valley turned the pumps off in response to Judge Wanger's order. And yet you know the smelt still keep dying and it might just possibly be because they needed the pumps to keep the spawning beds clean and and serviceable.
Mary: We could turn them back on and find out, couldn't we? Legally, we need to, because the law states anything you can do to save and endangered species must be done, and this may be exactly what it needs. By the way, we shouldn't be too hard on Judge Wanger. He did do at least some positive things. Back in May twenty seventh of two thousand ten, he looked at the biological opinion that had been used to turn the water off and he determined that it was not scientifically justified. I've got at least a note here that said that it did not use the best available science, and that the biological opinion inflicted great material harm to humans and to the human environment based on mere guestimations, so even the judge is beginning to question the reasoning that went behind turning the water off.
Michael: You talked about how politicians are able to get more water for political reasons.
Mary: Well they were at least able to expedite getting some of the water on and it was better than nothing. People were desperate.
Michael: Still, wouldn't it indicate there's something just not quite right about what's being done? If they say they have to have the water turned off to save the Delta smelt, which does not appear to be true, but if it is true, how do they come up with a political reason to get around that when there is no economic reason?
Mary: A lawsuit was sent through the court, which claimed that they had to do everything that was possible to save the smelt and they proposed turning the pumps off under this law. The same law which is to protect the smell should be employed to turn the pumps back on to save the smelt, and not only save the smelt, but save a lot of other endangered species. No one ever looked to see where the water was going. They just looked at shutting the pump off. They didn't look at the four hundred miles that the water travels. The water also goes not just the farmers in homes and factories, but too wetlands, bird refuges and lakes. It goes right under the Pacific flyway, which is the largest migratory route for birds going back and forth between Alaska and South America, and these birds use this water. When they turn the water off, it kills frogs and this is one of the first things I actually noticed back over towards LeMoore. The farmers were pumping water into holding ponds and then moving that into their fields, but the holding ponds had reed beds and I went in and looked at one of them, and saw that it had dried up to the point that the mud had cracked and embedded in the mud were little legged tadpoles that had tried to escape the drying by burrowing into the mud. They look like raisins pressed in there and they were all dead. This meant that turning the water off had hit the amphibian population for four hundred miles. We looked at waterbirds as well at the bird refuge and found that it seemed to be impacting the brown pelican, the sand hill cranes, the osprey eagles and the little marsh wrens. All of these are endangered species, protected by the same law that protects the smelt. If we really wanted to follow the law as it's written, we would turn the water back on for them. In one of the saddest cases was the kit foxes. If you look at where the kit fox occurs, it occurs right along the canal there, that's where the populations are, and they even built a kit fox preserve, especially along the canal. Now the kit fox does not drink water, doesn't have to. It gets it out of the food except at one critical period, when the mother fox is nursing. She needs to drink water when she's lactating. She needs fresh water. They turned them off when the pups were in the den. If there was really a concern for endangered species, It should have been then.
Michael: And it didn't happen, did it?
Mary: No, and it didn't happen to the point that we had an ecological disaster. Not only did we lose endangered animals. The land dried up. Salt and selenium moved upward through the soil. One of the reasons the farmers had put the canal there originally was to supply fresh water to a wetlands, a wildlife preserve because without the pumps on the selenium had been killing waterbirds. By putting the pumps on and moving fresh water there, they preserved the birdlife and this had been shut off.
Michael: So everything that we've done that's been good in the San Joaquin Valley has turned bad, because we're trying to save a two inch fish that in all acutality we seem to be killing because of our good intentions.
Mary: Were killing a lot of things with kindness.
Michael: Well, we tried to save a little too inch-long fish and in the process of trying to save that fish we put tens of thousands of people out of work ,dried up hundreds of thousands of acres of land, threatened who knows how many species of wildlife in the southern San Joaquin Valley, a complete and utter disaster. Can we reverse this disaster by turning the pumps back on Mary Winfrey?
Mary: There's a reasonable chance. There may still be enough populations of smelt left in the Delta, so if we return the conditions to normal, they can recover, At the same time moving the water down the canal would help the endangered species that the water has been supporting, and it would help the economy of California. Without farm production, there were no agricultural taxes and so the state lost millions in agricultural taxes. One of the reasons that our students have had to pay higher tuition to go to college, there was simply no money to go to the school, but there's something more at the same time. Under the same concept that the salmon disappeared because of the water flow, there's still an effort being made to pull down three electrical power dams and a flood control dam up on the Klamath. This is being done by the federal government, Secretary of Interior Salazar showed up about this time last year and announced that they wanted to dismantle these to save the salmon. Remember, these salmon had been affected by the salmon virus. Now if they do that this would create difficulty in irrigating crops up north it would it would create a dustbowl up there. It would remove the electrical power generated by water. This is clean energy and at the same time that we have a mandatory reduction of coal and that fossil fuel powered electrical stations because of assembly bill thirty two, were supposed to get rid of about a third of them. This means California is being stripped of electrical power and water.
Michael: Mary, are they trying to get rid of people?
Mary: I don't know. Who is they? I think that there are some people, some ecologists who would like to reduce the human population. There are some people on the Delta or down below the Delta who feel that human development and the development of cities and agriculture impairs the wildness of the situation. They're unaware the fish have been farmed on this area for over a hundred years and that the Delta system, the canal system ,goes back to when the early Chinese settlers dug canals as well as put in a railroad and that the ag system has carried on and that even the indians put in irrigation systems.
Michael: Mary, thank you very much.