The Delta Smelt: A Stakeholder Analysis

In California a major issue is how to uphold environmental laws in the midst of an unprecedented drought. A specific example garnering a large amount of press is the issue of the critically endangered species the Delta Smelt. This tiny fish is about the length of your finger and plays a critical role in the health of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. The Endangered Species Act requires the state of California to take measures to try and preserve this fish through limitations on the export of water from the Delta and new legislative measures like the proposal for the $15 billion “WaterFix” Twin Tunnels Project (Mckay). These measures have been critiqued by environmentalists, economists, farmers, and tax payers alike. Looking through a stakeholder analysis it is possible to understand the complexity of the issue of saving the smelt and the need for water in California (“Tiny Endangered Fish Highlights California Drought Conflicts.”).

A main stakeholder in this issue are the farmers of California. Farming is a huge business in California especially in Southern California where the Delta is located. The farmers have been diverting the river upstream for years in order to irrigate their fields and are blaming the Delta Smelt for the water restrictions that have been put in place that are making them cut down on their farms because they can’t get enough water for all their fields. The farmers have come together and sued the state of California for their stringent water restrictions to preserve the delta smelt, their lawsuit went to the supreme court which upheld the state because of the endangered species act protection of the delta smelt. The result of the court case limits the farmers ability to pursue further action and many farmers have been dealing with the water restrictions as best they can and limiting their water intake(“Tiny Endangered Fish Highlights California Drought Conflicts.”).

Another important stakeholder is the tax-payers of California. Although it is a widespread and diverse group, many tax-payers are worried about expensive initiatives to try and save the Smelt. The $15 billion tunnel project has many tax-payers joining coalitions such as the group “Stop the Tunnels” in order to stop this project from going forward (Mckay). The scientists who are involved in this issue are also at a major hitch because although it is scientifically shown that the delta smelt are an important indicator of the health of the delta, recent population predictors have shown they are so close to the edge of extinction they may not survive into next year. The major decline has been caused by the earlier upstream diversions and the 4-year drought and new costly initiatives have very little chance at saving the straggling fish. This is the issue that has caused many environmentalists to fight against the costly tunnel initiative because they say not only will the tunnels be expensive but they could also cause other unintended consequences and possibly pull water from the delta regardless.

The State of California has been placed in an unfortunate situation because they are required to take action to save the fish, but the fish may be beyond saving. They are facing dismayed groups that are upset at what is likely to be a waste of time and money. However, looking at the stakeholder, the delta smelt these initiatives are a last chance. The delta smelt once thrived in the delta and were found by the thousands up until 5 years ago. The major decline and the extinction of these fish has shown a major problem with the delta and is the first domino to fall in the diverse ecology of the delta. UC Davis has a last ditch attempt to save these fish and has been breeding the fish in captivity to try and form a refuge population in case they need to try to reintroduce the specie in the future. Although costly, if the initiatives prove successful and the smelt were to attempt a comeback it would be a huge success for the delta and set a precedent for the protection of other species (Orr). By looking at the stakeholder of this issue, it becomes clear how the issue is a complex one. It also allows for an important opportunity to look for common ground between the groups to try and find a solution. The costs and benefits can be analyzed to find what is the most widely beneficial solution. However, it also reveals that despite what may be most beneficial, other barriers such as the limitations of certain groups may result in an unpopular or unsuccessful solution. In the future, the decision makers in this issue will need to do their own such stakeholder evaluations and decide how to handle this issue.




Works Cited

  1. “Tiny Endangered Fish Highlights California Drought Conflicts.” CBS News, August 4, 2015.

Mckay, Hollie. “Critics of California Water-Tunnel Project Claim It’s Gov’t Waste to Save Tiny Smelt.” Fox News, February 22, 2016.

Orr, Trent. “THE DELTA SMELT: A TINY FISH WITH BIG IMPLICATIONS.” Earth Justice, January 21, 2015.

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