HE WHO SMELT IT, DEALT IT: Let me admit that I wouldn’t know a Delta Smelt if one bit me on the ass. And neither, I’m guessing, would most of you. But that doesn’t mean I want to be a party to their annihilation from planet Earth. What, after all, did a smelt ever do to me?
The smelts in question lived for eons in fecund aquatic bliss up in the San Francisco Bay Delta, hence their name. Delta Smelt have teeth on the tips of their tongues, which presumably they use to feast on tiny microscopic phytoplankton. In turn, the smelt constitute a basic food group that sustains the health and well-being of many larger species. In other words, the smelt might not be the life of the party, but without them, there is no party.
Until about 10 years ago, we in Santa Barbara County had no smelt blood on our hands. We lost our innocence back in 1991 when county voters allowed themselves to be stampeded by the well-orchestrated scare tactics of a few developers, their wily attorneys, and the Santa Barbara News-Press (too long ago to blame this one on Wendy McCaw). This crew persuaded us to spend gazillions of dollars to build the massive pipelines and pumps needed to hook Santa Barbara County water customers into the State Water Project, which has been moving the waters of Northern California to the populated deserts of the south for decades. At the time, we had just emerged from a particularly scary drought and were not particularly receptive to the sky-is-falling arguments made by State Water’s opponents, who warned us the project was too expensive and unreliable. Back then, nobody made much of a fuss about the smelt, even though millions of them were being ground to bits by the gargantuan water pumps needed to move the river water of the north through the Bay Delta-the real choke point in the system-and into the pipes leading to the spigots of the south.
There’s little so grating as the lamentations of battles long lost, so why bring this up now? Well, the smelt are rearing their tiny little heads and attempting to bite us all on the backside. Or at least a bunch of sports fishers who are acting on the smelt’s behalf. Upset by the disappearance of the big fish that dine on the smelt, the rod ‘n’ reel crowd sued the State Water Project, charging its operators never obtained the state permits necessary to allow the collateral damage to the smelt-now on the endangered species list-inflicted by the pumps. They claim recent efforts at surveying Delta Smelt populations have turned up a scant 25 specimens, down from the hundreds identified just seven years ago. Two months ago, a California judge found in the anglers’ favor and ordered the vast turbines turned off if the State Water operators couldn’t obtain the necessary permits within 60 days. Last week, that judge reaffirmed his original opinion, triggering a series of appeals by nearly every water agency in the state. In response, Governor Arnold-normally at pains to appear greener than Shrek I, II, and III combined-celebrated Endangered Species Week (last week) by denouncing anything that might impede the flow of water to the green lawns, white teeth, and sparkling cars that form the basis of civilization in Southern California.
Riding in the balance of all this litigation-and the poor little smelt-is about $50 million a year worth of State Water designated for Santa Barbara County. Maybe that’s occasion enough to reflect on the consequences and contributions of our decision to buy into State Water in the first place. During the 10 years the City of Santa Barbara has been on the hook for State Water, we’ve paid through the teeth-roughly $43 million since it started-for an “entitlement” of 3,000 acre feet. For all but one year, we’ve asked for only 20 percent of that amount, but given the economics of the deal, we had to pay as if we took it all. (You really pay for the pipes, not the water.) Whether we get one drop or a million, the City of Santa Barbara is obligated to pay more than $4 million a year.
During the State Water campaign, we were promised the price would be roughly $1,500 an acre-foot. But when you do the math, the real cost is closer to $6,000 an acre-foot. At that price, we would have done better to import the ice sheets melting off Greenland. What water we don’t use-80 percent of it-we sell to places like Montecito or Santa Maria. But for only $25 an acre foot! No doubt selling something that cost $6,000 for $25 makes sense in some universe, but my rocket ship doesn’t go there yet.
The situation is much worse for the City of Carpinteria, where the chasm between how much State Water it ordered and how much it actually needs is much greater even than Santa Barbara’s. For Carpinteria, the true cost of State Water is closer to $10,000 an acre foot. That, in significant measure, explains why Carpinteria customers are in chronic sticker shock about paying the highest water rates in the county. The Carpinteria Water District is attempting to lighten this debt burden by selling a portion of its State Water to a developer hoping to build 1,300 new homes in a “village” 10 miles north of Lompoc. And the developers of the new “village” of 25,000 people-proposed in the middle of nowhere just a few miles out of Orcutt-will be relying upon State Water, some of which will be provided at bargain-basement prices by the water agencies of the south to serve their new residents. To the extent the smelt can help stop these ill-conceived plans, I’m rooting for the fish. In the meantime, don’t bother looking in the mirror for their teeth marks on your backside. Take it from me; you’ve already been bit.