Central Valley

Valley senator backs smelt hatchery

State Sen. Dean Florez on Monday proposed a $5 million fish hatchery to expand the population of delta smelt, a threatened species that has caused major water cutbacks for farms and cities.

Experts estimate that since January, farms and cities have lost 640,000 acre-feet of water -- a year's supply for 1.2 million households -- to protect the 3-inch minnow from extinction.

The hatchery proposed in Senate Bill 994 would build up the smelt's numbers and allow the state's water projects to avoid future cutbacks, said Florez, a Shafter Democrat, who joined Sen. Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, in sponsoring the measure.

"This ought to be something everyone gets behind," Florez said. "If we don't get those water pumps moving, it can mean big economic problems."

He did not suggest that simply breeding more smelt will fix the ecosystem at the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, where the fish lives. He called it an interim step so water could flow more freely again to farms and cities.

San Joaquin Valley farm and Southern California water officials said they support the idea. Valley farmers and residents south of the Tehachapis face higher water costs and shortages because of pumping cutbacks.

An official from the California Sportsfishing Protection Alliance, a nonprofit group based in Stockton, said he was hesitant to support the idea until he and others had studied it. Environmentalists, who filed suit over the dwindling smelt, could not be reached to comment.

To protect the smelt, U.S. District Judge Oliver W. Wanger in Fresno last year ordered a 30% water pumping cutback at the delta. Scientists believe the habitat is harmed and smelt are dying in the pumps.

Now, Metropolitan Water District of Southern California is urging 18 million residents in its service area to conserve as much as possible this summer. In January, the district's rates will increase 14%, about a third of which is for additional water the agency must buy after losing delta supplies.

"We don't see any rationing this year," said general manager Jeff Kightlinger. "But if this situation continues, I'm not sure what will happen next year."

A third of the 600,000-acre Westlands Water District has been taken out of production, officials said. Farmers will rely as much as they can on ground-water pumping, lowering underground water supplies this summer.

"The water system is truly broken," said west-side farmer John Harris. "One of every three people in our farming organization has lost a job over this."

There may be more delta cutbacks as Wanger considers protections for Northern California salmon runs in a different case. A hearing is set for Friday.

Scientists consider the stressed smelt and salmon to be an indication that the delta's entire ecosystem is spiraling downward.

The delta is a sensitive estuary where 40% of the state's river water flows. Huge south delta pumps divert the flow to 23 million people and 3 million acres of farmland.

Florez proposes to use water bond funds in Proposition 13, which voters passed in 2000, to construct the smelt hatchery. Farmers, industries and cities would share the $3 million annual tab for operating it.

He said it would be the first time in almost 40 years that the state has built a fish hatchery, adding that his legislation calls for completion by January 2011. The state Department of Fish and Game would work with the state Department of Water Resources and the University of California to operate the hatchery.

Researchers have been able to breed smelt in captivity for more than a decade. Captive breeding has been helpful in restoring other species, such as the California Condor, Florez said.

The idea is a positive step, said Westlands general manager Tom Birmingham: "This is the first real effort to recover the species, other than pumping restrictions at the delta."