Saturday, May 16, 2015

Death of a Species

Callous indifference and business-as-usual greed dooms the delta, and the delta smelt.

As ecological icons go, the delta smelt isn't much. A small silver fish, like a zillion others. But it lives in the way of dredgers, bulldozers, farmers, shippers, and a thirsty multitude. It was put on the endangered species list in 1993, and has kept right on dwindling, until in the most recent count, a single smelt was found. One.

The San Joaquin / Sacramento / San Francisco Bay delta used to be a very large estuary of marshes, reeds, rivers, and islands that gradually fed the great rivers of the Sierras into the Bay and thence through the Golden Gate the Pacific ocean. Fresh water met briny in constant tidal and rain-fed flows. Smelt were obviously not the only beneficiary of this rich ecosystem, but countless shellfish, mammals such as beavers, insects by the billion, and birds by the million. The delta was a major stop on the Pacific flyway for migrating birds. And it was the conduit for several species of now-endangered salmon.

Comparison of the delta as it was, and as it is now. Virtually all its marshland and most of its complex river habitat is gone.

Despite the popular image of California as a state of nature and natural wonders, it has been pillaged in the name of greed from the beginning. The Spanish mission system started the ball rolling by enslaving and decimating the native peoples. Then the gold rush led to thorough destruction and pollution of the rivers, while working its way upwards into the hardrock mines of the Sierra. Next was agriculture, which in California became a rapacious and short-sighted industry, well-illustrated in the now-obscure novel by Frank Norris, The Octopus. Then it was onwards to a thorough re-plumbing of the state by the water lords of Southern California. The latest incarnation of this get-rich quick ethic was the dot-com bubble, by which Silicon Valley took investors all over the world to the cleaners.

The little smelt and all the natural riches it stands for had little chance, of course, when there was free, fertile land to be had by diking, draining, and dredging. A state which had some inclination to protect the spectacular, yet conveniently remote and barren, high Sierras, had no appreciation for the ecological values of wilderness in the bottomlands, even for flood control, which is increasingly difficult as so much of the "reclaimed" land is under sea level, protected by primitive, flimsy dikes. With the extended drought and the vast rerouting of fresh water, the delta has begun to flow backwards, introducing salt as well. But the state, being owned by its commercial interests, leaves public and ecological policy to die a quiet death, along with the smelt.

The planetary climate and biosphere face similar forces of corruption, greed, inertia, and neglect, which will just as soon see it die with a whimper than plan in a public and morally forward thinking spirit for future generations of all species.

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